A common refrain that I hear from every direction is something to the effect of, “I just can’t wait for things to get back to normal.” This is an understandable sentiment. 2020 hasn’t exactly been the best year. We all want the sense of relative safety and security that we seemed to have before ‘social distancing’ and ‘pandemic’ became part of our everyday vernacular. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but that sense of safety was an illusion and the pandemic has demonstrated that with a clarity so blinding that most of us can’t stand to look at it. But we have to look because trends will get worse until we work to make them better. That remembered and longed-for ‘normal’ wasn’t sustainable, it wasn’t resilient, and it wasn’t enough.
In pursuit of increased profits, we’ve outsourced the making of things to other countries. This has proven to be problematic for a number of reasons. Not only does it mean fewer middle-class jobs here in the US, but it also impairs our capabilities. When global supply chains contract because of a major crisis, this is the last time you want to find yourself incapable. In our pursuit of economic efficiency and shareholder value, we have forgotten that there are always tradeoffs in every decision. Increased efficiency means less resilience. There’s less slack in the system so you can’t absorb shocks. This efficiency might be the better choice for non-essential products, but you want resilience when it comes to what you can’t do without.
The United States is the wealthiest country in the world. We spend more on health care than any other nation by any objective measurement. And yet our outcomes are objectively worse than many other developed nations. We pay more and get less. How is it that we have tens of millions of people without access to decent, affordable health care? I’m not saying that state-provided Medicare for all is the answer. But I know that tying health insurance benefits to employment in the time of an economically destructive pandemic is definitively not the answer.
We should ask ourselves the question, what is education for? To which my answer is something along the lines of, preparing our children to be productive citizens that are able to thrive in the modern world. For K-12 public school, we need to think more about civics, economics, creativity, critical thinking, and self-directed learning while still focusing on the essentials of science, mathematics, language, and literature. Institutions of higher education in the past few decades have fallen into the trap of thinking they are a business. In the interest of competition and marketing, they have spent wildly on costly amenities and administrative overhead while catering to their most vocal and activist ‘customers’ who see harm in being challenged by ideas. The result is increasingly a safe space full of distraction and light on actual learning that passes all of the expensive overhead onto graduates in the form of massive student loan debt.
Our public institutions are failing us. At every level, the US government has been plagued by an inability to act, gross incompetence, and a lack of connection to the needs of the people. To be fair, a global pandemic is a major shock to any system. But the combination of poor leadership, partisan nonsense, ineffective bureaucracy, and a penchant for favoring the wealthy have led to a response so disjointed and useless that we now have little choice but to do nothing and hope for the best. Some will argue that this is because ‘big government’ can do nothing else. This statement is objectively false. Our government is an organization of people that should be guided by a mission and empowered to execute said mission. Plenty of large corporations and other organized collections of people are able to do this every day without this level of failure.
Our narratives are part of the problem. Our partisan narratives divide us. Our narratives about self-sufficiency and individualism ignore the reality of our interconnectedness. Our mechanisms for discussing and working through competing narratives have been broken by social media and the lack of a coherent, shared baseline of what constitutes reality. Our narratives about money and success drive policy and financial outcomes that serve fewer and fewer people while those without luck or resources continue stacking up at the bottom of the system without any good options. The ossification of our narratives results in systemic issues that can’t be fixed because fixing them requires conversation, openness, and an understanding of nuance. All of this is dangerous.
We have allowed our civilization to bend to the needs of capitalism rather than having capitalism serve the needs of our civilization. The economy is a powerful force and we should not constrain it any more than necessary. But neither should we allow it to run roughshod over the humans that it should be benefitting. We live in an overarching and global system of systems with a complexity that no one person can understand. That system is perfectly designed to get the results that it gets. Unfortunately, the results that constitute what we call ‘normal’ ceased to serve us a long time ago.