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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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OCCUPY WALL STREET IS THE TIP OF THE ICEBERG


Wednesday October 26, 2011

EUGENE LINDEN

          But for the housing bubble that temporarily camouflaged our “winner take all” economy, the resentments that produced Occupy Wall Street might have bubbled to the surface many years earlier. Published back in 1998, my book, The Future in Plain Sight, contained a chapter on the wage gap, which argued that the ever-widening gulf between executive pay and the incomes of the rest of the workforce was one of the intractable problems that portended future instability.  Every metric I cited in that chapter as evidence that the wage gap had reached crisis proportions has only widened in the intervening years.
 Here’s a snippet of what I wrote back then:


       …The growing pool of modem-accessible workers may act as a cap on wages and job availability in the U.S. for years to come. A substantial percentage of America’s white-collar workers face an indefinite future of limited prospects.


            This means that a large pool of voters will have more reason to remain angry and dissatisfied, becoming fertile ground for radical and xenophobic causes. The danger to society comes not so much from extreme events such as the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City… as from even-wilder oscillations in political positions, in which moderates lose influence and the more passionate extremists take control of the political agenda.


           This is one reason why the widening gap between the top and the bottom income groups cannot continue to widen indefinitely. The few can maintain their wealth only with the permission of the many. If the middle continues to stagnate in the developed countries while the top prospers, the majority will demand action, and politicians, being politicians, will give it to them…

   
                     Well, here we are in 2011, and we may be approaching that point where the wage gap cannot continue to widen. Will these protests continue to swell and force politicians to act? If they do, what will they give the voters?  


                      On the first question, I think that if the protests coalesce around the 99% meme -- the conviction that system is rigged, and that the middle class is being asked to suffer to preserve the privileges of the very rich – OWS will continue to gain traction. Indeed, it’s not inconceivable that this movement might co-opt some of the anger that has supported the Tea Party (which, since its inception, has had the delicate task of asking the middle class to vote against its own interests).


                      What might politicians toss to the 99%? Easy -- a tax increase on the wealthy (anti-tax posturing notwithstanding). They’ve done it before, several times in fact. If pressure builds much more, Congress will do it again.


                    Of course, OWS might peter out as the weather chills, and if the offensive actions of a few protestors continue to dominate the media coverage. Regardless, the genie is out of the bottle: more and more of the middle class are coming to the conclusion that the system is unfair.  There is no reason to expect that this anger will dissipate, even if OWS fades, if only because the endless cycle of layoffs, benefit cuts, and pay reductions, will continue to remind the middle class of their economic pain.


                   The lucky few might well ponder the voting power of the 99%, and consider whether they really want to continue to reap everything on their wish list. There are teasing suggestions that some may be thinking along those lines. Consider OWS’s favorite villain, Goldman Sachs.  The bank could have reported a profit in the third quarter, but instead showed a loss, mystifying some observers. Is it possible that the clever minds at the financial giant realized that yet another quarter of big profits was not the message they wanted to send, given the merciless economic context -- and the chanting crowds just a few blocks from their headquarters?
 

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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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