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Imagining a Post Pandemic World

How might a post-pandemic world look and feel? Let’s imagine a creative team at a New York City advertising agency pitching a campaign in 2050 for a new perfume (more than most products, perfumes are sold by attaching to the dreams and aspirations of their times).  The Big Apple, ...

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Afterword to the softbound edition.


The Octopus and the Orangutan
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The Future In Plain Sight
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The Parrot's Lament
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Silent Partners
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Affluence and Discontent
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The Alms Race
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Apes, Men, & Language
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Cashing in on Angst


Sunday November 30, 2014

 

In this op-ed, published in today’s New York Times, I explored an enduring meme in American life. Our consumer society has banished religion and tradtions to the sidelines, leaving only one’s place in the meritocracy as a prop for identity. And since that tends to be defined by material success, most people are left with a gnawing sense that they have failed in life. This anxiety has been exploited by sales pitches for generations.

 

There is limited space in an oped; too limited, for instance, to delve deeply into the issues raised by anxiety about identity in a consumer society.  Dig deeply, however, and we can see that this anxiety provides nothing less than the motive energy of the consumer society.  The genius of a consumer society is that it exploits the very anxieties it produces.

 

Insecurity about identity in a world that worships material success is, of course, a well-trodden meme of American literature and theater, mostly as it plays out in personal terms. Think Willie Loman.  But then there is discontent’s role in the consumer society as a system. What does a purchase accomplish? What do millions of purchases accomplish?  They mobilize capitalism and markets. So, we are encouraged to define ourselves in material terms, creating discontent, which can then be then it mined to spur further purchases, and each purchase further fuels the consumer society. This catalyst for purchases is inexhaustible because material acquisitions cannot satisfy a non-material need.

 

And what are these non-material needs that cannot be satisfied by purchases?  At their core, those needs – the powerful urge to be a part of something noble and larger – are religious. Think about the consumer society in an historical context. From the dawn of Western civilization, reason -- in the form of the hand of enterprise -- has expanded its foothold on behavior. As Arnold Toynbee wrote many decades ago, the ancient Greeks moved the gods out of the trees and up onto Mount Olympus, and then monotheism took that one further and bundled the gods into one supreme being and, in effect, exiled “him” to the heavens. The Reformation made it OK to feel good about doing well, and then, sometime in the middle of the last century, the consumer society brilliantly drove religion to the margins of daily life, while co-opting the needs that drive religious fervor for commercial ends. So here we are, with “Black Friday” recruiting more passionate devotees than any church. Neat trick, and who can argue against the convenience and security the consumer society has delivered. There are some costs, however…  

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Short Take

Relaxing COVID-19 Restrictions will Kill, not Save, the Economy


 

[This is a more developed version of the previous Short Take}

Those who want to relax mandates on self-isolation and social distancing to save the economy have got it exactly backwards. Reopen society too soon, and we risk destroying the economy as well as public order and our shaky democratic institutions. The reason comes down to two words: supply lines.

 Supply lines for necessities such as food are already under stress. Those going to grocery stories encounter random instances of empty shelves and vegetable bins. Smithfield Farms shut down a South Dakota plant that supplies roughly 4% of the pork in the nation after over 500 of its workers tested positive for the coronavirus. Other giant meat processors such as Tyson have also shut down plants for similar reasons. Farmers in the West are having trouble finding workers to harvest the crops now reaching maturity in the fields. And even if they manage to get the crops picked, farmers are out of luck if the truckers fail to show up, or the flow of packaging for their products get interrupted. 

Right now, these disruptions are episodic, but that should be concerning because we haven’t even seen the end of the first wave. What we have seen is that vital front-line workers such as nurses, doctors, EMT’s, and other first responders have had trouble finding protective equipment and maintaining morale. Some have staged walkouts over the dangerous conditions, and these are workers with a sense of mission.

By contrast, for most of the hourly-paid workers who keep supplies made, distributed, and sold, their work is a job that pays the bills. It would be appropriate if society recognized that they played a vital role, but mostly these workers encounter demanding bosses, monotony, and surly customers. If sick, they are not going to work – nor would we want them too. And they are not likely to risk their lives if going to work exposes them to contagion.

Disruption of one link, e.g. the trucker that delivers food the last mile, could halt a supply chain. COVID-19 is a threat to every link. Should a second wave hit before there is a readily available, cheap and effective treatment, it’s a very high probability that many supply lines will be disrupted and filling the gaps could easily overwhelm the nation’s businesses. 

Even today, on the evening news, we see images of vast caravans of cars lined up to get supplies from food banks. Imagine two weeks of empty shelves in the stores that feed our cities. How likely is it that civil order could be maintained in that situation? Will people suffer in silence if they realize that they can’t buy food for their kids because our leaders reopened the economy before a treatment was available because they wanted to prop up the stock market (which is how it will be portrayed)? If we want to look analogues for what life is like once supply chains break down, they’re readily available today in cities like Mogadishu, Kinshasa, and Port au Prince. 

 Thus far, the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic seems to be a mélange of Boss Tweed, Don Corleone and Inspector Clouseau. For the next act, the administration has a choice: Churchill, who bolstered British morale during the London Blitz, or Pol Pot, who sacrificed millions of his countrymen for a bad idea. Let’s hope those around Trump can convince him that the cure for the disease is the cure for the economy.
 



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