America is confronting multiple crises resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Politically, we face a profoundly consequential election in November; economically, a depression or recession is probably already upon us. Two books have risen to the top of my thinking as I sort this out, Naomi Klein’s “The Shock Doctrine” (2008) and Lizabeth Cohen’s “Making a New Deal” (1990).
Kline writes about the roles that disasters play in the restructuring of societies (wars, natural disasters, pandemics, climate change). She uses as her fulcrum an observation from economist Milton Friedman from 1962, “Only a crisis — actual or perceived — produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”
Kline takes us on a stroll down some of the biggest global shocks from the 1950s through Hurricane Katrina and in the process shows how in each case people use the crisis to shift government policy to their liking. Kline focuses on the success of Chicago School libertarian-economists to move global policies in the direction of their free-market and privatizing agenda.
Today, we see the results of this shift toward efficiency, free market, privatizing, and profit maximization solutions to every conceivable problem. Almost certainly, this model of economic organization has merits for such things as the production of high fashion clothing, high end bathroom and kitchen fixtures, automobiles, keychains, etc.
It makes no sense for building a health care system. We have organized our health care system around making money, not public health. And so we have built a “just in time” health care system with too few hospital beds, masks, gowns, gloves, respirators, ICU units, nurses, and doctors than we need in a public health crisis. It’s hard to charge lots of money for plentiful masks, so you make masks scarce and everyone makes more money. It’s supply and demand. All this makes sense if the purpose of your health care system was to ensure those with investments in the health care system made a healthy return. But health is not fashion; it’s life and death.
Little interest in new vaccines, new antibiotics
Our pharmaceutical industry is primarily focused on profit making, and so there is little interest in a flu vaccine that works against all flu viruses; instead they prefer annual vaccines that you pay for again and again. Likewise, there has been little investment in new antibiotics. Instead, they spend billions on advertising prescription drugs and on dubious solutions to toenail fungus and erectile disfunction.
Almost certainly, the crisis we are facing will be seen by the free-market evangelists as an invitation to privatize. I can already hear it, “The problems we faced during this pandemic resulted from government overreach and burdensome regulations. To ensure we have enough N95 masks, we need deregulation and a tax cut.”
Luckily, there are other ideas lying around, and this brings to “Making a New Deal.” Here, Cohen explains that Americans lived in ethnic and racial clusters for most of our history. Within these clusters, people formed benevolent institutions that cared for their own kind. Jews had the B’nai B’rith, blacks had the Urban League, Irish Catholics had the Ancient Order of Hibernians; there were the Sons and Daughters of Norway — you get the idea. In a period with virtually no social safety net, these private charities were all a person could count on. When the Great Depression hit in 1929, the severity of the crisis was such that in short order, this private solution was insufficient to the need.
Working class organized
It is at this point that the American working class began to act like a class, demanding that government respond where the private sector and charity could not. Farmers organized, demanded action, and the government responded with a variety of programs, and in some cases, moratoriums on mortgage foreclosures. Workers organized, demanded action, and the government responded by creating a minimum wage, outlawing child labor, and leveling the playing field for organized labor. The elderly organized, demanded action, and the government responded with Social Security. The unemployed organized, demanded action, and the government responded with meaningful work for young people (the CCC), and artists and builders (WPA and the PWA). Rural people organized, demanded action, and the government responded with rural electrification.
So when the prophets of privatization dust off their old arguments and preach tax cuts and deregulation, I hope people dust off the New Deal and consider those ideas as a pathway out.
Now is the time to build a health care system designed for wellness and public health. Now is the time to provide millions of meaningful jobs building a clean economy for tomorrow. Now is the time for all workers to have paid sick days, paid vacation, secure employment, and a secure retirement. Now is the time for universal, high quality day care. Now is the time to take money out of politics and ensure voting rights. Now is the time to fix our broken immigration system and reform our criminal justice system. Now is the time to rebuild our public colleges and universities and make them affordable again. Now is the time to liberate our teachers and students from the for-profit testing regimes that hamstring creativity in our K-12 systems. And now is the time for a politics that confronts the bigotry that poisons our national spirit and generates grotesque inequality.
Let’s come out of this crisis building a future that works for everyone.
Jeff Kolnick, Ph.D., is a professor of history at Southwest Minnesota State University.The views expressed in this commentary are solely his own.
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