America is broken, but is it too late to fix it?

The coronavirus crisis is exposing the weaknesses in the American capitalist system. Is this an opportunity to remake our society for the better, or a sign that we have nowhere to go but down?

 

Two recent pieces draw attention to how many of the social norms and policies that define American life are being revealed by the coronavirus crisis to be completely fraudulent.

America Is A Sham (Slate) - Dan Kois suggests that

All over America, the coronavirus is revealing, or at least reminding us, just how much of contemporary American life is bullshit, with power structures built on punishment and fear as opposed to our best interest. Whenever the government or a corporation benevolently withdraws some punitive threat because of the coronavirus, it’s a signal that there was never any good reason for that threat to exist in the first place.

This is a powerful lesson to be learned from the response to the COVID-19 outbreak, and we would do well to remember it long after the outbreak subsides. If we can safely release so many low-level offenders from jails and prisons without any fear that that represent a threat to public order, why were they in jail in the first place? If horrendously-overpaid executives of companies that provide internet service are willing to suspend broadband data caps in the midst of the crisis, tacitly admitting that they are simply a profit-increasing measure, rather than having any technical basis, then why should we be willing to accept them once the crisis is over? While it's helpful that the government is suspending interest on student loans, why in the world does it charge its own citizens interest on the loans necessary to educate themselves to begin with? These and so many other features of America's cruel and arbitrary capitalist landscape are now, very quickly, being revealed as completely pointless (except to further line the pockets of the already-wealthy, or to punish the poorest and most vulnerable among us).

Coronavirus stimulus and disaster plans reveal cruelty of capitalist and political 'reality' (Thought Experiment at NBC News) - Paris Marx points out that

In the past few weeks, all notion of what’s politically and economically realistic has gone out the window in the face of the fast-spreading coronavirus and the accompanying economic collapse this pandemic will certainly bring. To protect lives and livelihoods, governments around the world are taking measures that would have been treated as unaffordable or even impossible just last month.

One of the most salient lessons of the response to the massive public health crisis we are facing is how deeply wrong-headed many of the most basic features of American society (for-profit healthcare, mass incarceration, completely lopsided compensation structure, and many others) truly are. And it is becoming clear that fixing many of these structural weaknesses, by eliminating student debt, replacing private insurers with a single-payer system, strengthening labor and safety-net policies, embracing a Green New Deal or some other response to climate change, and other so-called 'radical' policies which are really entirely logical and express the interests and preferences of American society at large, were never as out of reach as many people claimed them to be. If we had eliminated student debt, reformed our health care system, and boosted the safety net, those investments would have all paid off in a big way by reducing the costs of our current crisis. But now that trillions of dollars are being spent to (maybe) rescue our economy from an absolute worst-case scenario, those other reforms will likely seem that much further out of reach.

After a series of relief measures that will run into many trillions of dollars and massively inflate the public debt of the US and many other countries, it becomes even harder to imagine forgiving $1.5tn of student loans, committing the necessary $4tn+ to fixing our infrastructure, spending the trillions necessary to shift towards renewable energy and reorient our economy towards sustainability. Perhaps the shared sacrifices that so many people are now enduring will give us reasons to reevaluate the assumptions that have held us back from making progress towards a better, more equal, and more sustainable future. We are finding that this crisis is not all sacrifices. There are benefits as well, particularly more time to spend with our friends and families (even if it is by videoconference) and to connect with art, literature, and nature; an increased appreciation of things that we so often take for granted; slowing down and taking things one day at a time. Maybe all of that will act as a forced transition to the kind of new economy and society that we so badly need, one in which people are not so overworked, in which we are content with fewer material things and seek satisfaction in spiritual and creative pursuits rather than income maximization.

But I worry that, rather than a push in the right direction, this moment of crisis will actually serve as a crippling blow to our efforts to restore some sanity to our American way of life, business, and politics. It seems to me that America is firmly on the downslope of the curve of diminishing returns to increasing complexity, as described by Joseph Tainter in his important book The Collapse of Complex Societies. Unfortunately, it is all too possible that the stresses induced by the coronavirus crisis (economic, social, political) will accelerate this process of diminishing returns, rather than arrest it. As Americans, we are quickly finding out that our illusions about our superiority are becoming unmasked. Before this crisis started, America was ranked #1 for global pandemic preparedness by the Global Health Security Index. That rating now seems tragically quaint, as we are discovering that, while countries like South Korea and Germany could rapidly scale up testing and keep their outbreaks under control, the United States' response is looking much closer to the world's worst than to the world's best.

We are now facing a crisis as bad or worse than the one which precipitated the Great Recession, and it is suddenly not inconceivable that the current crisis could be as bad or worse than the Great Depression. Our nation's response to that epochal challenge made us stronger, and helped to set the stage for decades of American prosperity and world leadership. It is important to remember that the turnaround was a while in coming - the slide into depression continued for four years until the tide began to turn. It is too early to say that America cannot come together in the same way and emerge a stronger nation. If, after decades of unprecedented prosperity and power, the United States was not able to implement a rational heath care system, provide housing and basic economic security for all of its citizens, and otherwise meet the basic standards of an 'advanced' society, it is difficult to imagine those things happening after another period of crisis which exposes the fundamental flaws in our political, social, and economic systems.

At the moment, the only thing that is certain is that the world will look much different in coming months and years. Let us all do our best to make sure that we can focus on what's truly important and work for positive change.


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