Back in the 1990s, William Strauss and Neil Howe predicted that some dramatic event would trigger a great national crisis sometime in the first 10-15 years of the new century. Because they drew on so much more history than almost anyone knew, and because the United States seemed at that moment to be going from strength to strength, they had very little impact upon major media and even less in academia. This remains the case today, even though their most important prediction obviously came true--more than once. Whether one dates the crisis from 2000-1 (as I do), or from the economic crisis of 2008 (as Neil Howe does), the spiral into chaos has continued with the election of Donald Trump in 2016 and now with the COVID-19 pandemic. (In The Fourth Turning, by the way, they cited terrorism, economic crisis, federal-state conflict, and epidemics as possible triggers.)
Drawing on this history of the three previous great crises in our national life--1774-94, 1861-8, and 1929-45--they also predicted the emergence of another leader comparable to Lincoln or FDR, a public commitment to new goals, and the mobilization of the country to meet them. In this they have been disappointed. With the exception of the first year or so after 9/11, each one of these crises has made polarization and conflict worse, not better, and the failure to deal effectively with any of them has discredited our professional political class. I have held off discussing the politics of our latest crisis for a few weeks, but it seems that it, too, is going to continue us down ou road to political hell, at least for a while, while adding a huge new economic crisis to the mix.
Last Sunday's New York Times led with a long story about travel from China to the US during the pandemic, with the purpose of showing that President Trump had not done very much to stop it, despite his boasts. Today's Sunday Times leads with a long article about Trump's slow response to the crisis. The editors of the Times, apparently, think it's more important to continue making the [very true] point that Donald Trump is a totally incompetent and boastful leader than to tell us exactly what is happening with respect to the epidemic and where it all might go. That, it seems to me, is simply the liberal counterpart of Trump's own approach, which consists of repeating ad nauseam that he and his team are doing a wonderful job, far better than any previous administration in comparable circumstances, and that the mainstream media refuse to recognize it. Although the Times has the facts on its side in this case, neither approach gets us any closer to dealing effectively with the epidemic and the economic catastrophe that we face, much less using the crisis to pull us together across political lines.
Rhetoric is only one aspect of this problem. While I have not taken the time to study the government's economic response to the crisis in detail, it seems to have focused on protecting the same big financial institutions that got us into the 2008 crisis and now find themselves overextended again. One story I read detailed how the Federal Reserve is now buying "asset-backed securities" based on car loans and other debts, just as it did in 2008-9. With manufacturing and service industries virtually at a standstill, the financial and legal communities look set to become relatively stronger yet again. I have not on the other hand seen much serious thinking about how we will sustain most of the population and many small businesses. My own state of Massachusetts has just given mortgage holders a three-month holiday, protecting them against foreclosure, but on the assumption--a very dubious one in my opinion--that debtors will be able to make these payments good after the grace period is over. It seems to me that we need something entirely unprecedented, a national holiday on debt payments of all kinds until we decide to send the nation back to work. We may also need to adopt ex-candidate Andrew Yang's proposal for universal basic income on a temporary basis, which I would combine with Elizabeth Warren's proposal for a wealth tax to pay for it. In a national emergency we need to draw on the resources of the wealthiest among us, as we did in the era of the two world wars. This might make a great campaign plank for Joe Biden.
And meanwhile, we may indeed face a very serious decision about our medium-term decision about our response to the epidemic. We cannot indefinitely continue the social distancing that is lowering our infection rate and with it, our death rate. A vaccine, authorities seem to agree, is at least a year away. An article this morning in my other morning paper, the Boston Globe, suggests that we will only be beyond the epidemic when we have herd immunity--which, he writes, only occurs when about 60% of the population has had it. That is almost 200 million people, and even if the death rate from the virus is only 1%, that means that nearly 2 million Americans would die of it. (I should say that I don't think we really have any idea of what the death rate actually is because no nation has tested enough to know how many people have been infected. I might mention anecdotally that I now know personally of about 10 people who seem to have had it but most of them have not been tested and none of them has had a positive test.) My hunch--and that is all it is--at this time is that our best hope is to discover some treatment options that will significantly reduce the death rate further, so that we will be able to tolerate it as we go back to work. That decision would be comparable to decisions in earlier eras to accept certain casualty levels in wars, because the nation felt we had to win them. Like my economic proposals in the preceding paragraph, this problem is only intermittently engaging our leadership now, but things will look very different, I think, by the end of the summer.
Led by Andrew Cuomo, of course, various governors have stepped forward to expand our capacity to treat COVID-19 patients and keep most of us at home and safe. They have given much better examples of what public service is about than we have seen in many years. I have begun to think that all our presidents are now so insulated by layers of spin control to give us the same impression of really being on top of events. We have however, a national an international economy, faced with a pandemic, and states cannot effectively solve our biggest problems. "Men fight best on death ground," Sun Tzu wrote. Most of us are not on death ground personally, and will not be, during the epidemic--but our political system is another matter.