COVID-19 is exposing the many weaknesses of our political and economic systems. Today we are suffering not only because of the pandemic, but also because of the choices we made and our failure to change course when needed. For the past 40 years we were told, and accepted the idea, that the government should play a minimal role in the economy of the country, cut taxes, cut social spending, provide as little as possible in way of services to the people and allow for-profit companies to operate with as little supervision as possible.
As a result the government followed a hands-off policy when big businesses, often the beneficiaries of generous state subsidies, closed down factories and moved their operations abroad. We were told that our newly unemployed neighbors will find better jobs in emerging fields. In reality such workers, if they were lucky to find other jobs, exchanged skilled, well-paying manufacturing jobs for semi-skilled work that paid but a fraction of their previous salaries. Our industrial base all but disappeared; working class wages and standard of living sank but we were told not to worry as we could buy whatever we want cheaper from abroad.
Effects especially felt in health care
The effects of such policies were felt in many aspects of our lives but more so in health care. The new low-paying jobs were often of the type that did not offer health benefits. At the same time we cut government subsidies to health care and allowed private health insurance and for-profit health care organizations to dominate the field. As a result millions of Americans became uninsured, underinsured, or their deductible became high and made regular doctor visits prohibitive. In the process, we created a permanent underclass, perpetually in debt, underemployed, badly paid when working, with serious health issues caused by bad nutrition, unhealthy lifestyle, and lack of regular access to medical care.
The bad times hit the middle class as well. With health insurance usually tied to one’s employment, loss of a job meant that middle class families found themselves vulnerable and many went bankrupt because of a serious illness.
From time to time we had a warning, but we chose to ignore it. When hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, the weakness of our government’s emergency response capabilities was out in the open for everyone to see. But we did not learn from this lesson; we were told that the problems were structural to that particular city and deregulations and budget cuts remained our policy.
The perfect storm
But then COVID-19, the perfect storm, hit. Our system couldn’t help us to procure protective masks and ventilators on time because our manufacturing has been “exported.” Indeed, the government’s adherence to hands-off policy even in an emergency created shortages of such vitally needed goods. The emergency hit hard a population already on the edge of the abyss. Our “new normal” had created millions of uninsured, millions who cannot pay for basic needs of life, and millions who, as they get older, sink into poverty. These people, our people, need help but our safety net has so many holes that it’s nonexistent; millions of people are unemployed and there is no money (we are told by some in the U.S. Senate) to help them on a more long-term basis. Our political system, great for a small, rural country of the 18th century, is out of place for a large modern state of the 21st century. Forty years of neglect resulted in an American giant with legs of clay.
This emergency is also a warning; maybe the last warning. Time has not run out, but it is running out. I do not believe in historical determinism; this country is not “destined” to fail. If it fails it will be because we made the wrong moves repeatedly and refused to correct our mistakes repeatedly.
The answer will not be found in the advice of Wall Street and retired Silicon Valley millionaires (the same ones whose advice brought us to this sorry state). The answer is back to the future, to the wise policies and programs that helped create a prosperous society where the innovators and entrepreneurs could make a fortune but social spending assured that the American dream was not out of reach for the masses. As one of the architects of what made America great in the first place, Hubert Humphrey, said: “The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in shadows of life, the sick, the needy, and the handicapped.”
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