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The under-reaction by the US government to the coronavirus was not inadvertent, a mistake. It was in part the result of a decades-long campaign to degrade the very idea that government can be a useful, essential aspect of our lives, that it can allow us to collectively accomplish tasks far beyond the capacity of any individual. Today, unfortunately, the dominant view in America, held by essentially all Republican leaders and too many Democratic ones, is that the “free market” always delivers better outcomes than the government.
But that’s the self-serving view of those who benefit most in our “winner-take-all” economy. What we need instead is a healthy, regulated balance between civil society, government, and private enterprise. And if we’re smart, we’ll use this current crisis to rebalance the scales in America. The bailouts this time cannot be like the 2008 variety, in which bankers got bonuses and millions of homeowners got screwed. We don’t just need strings attached to this bailout. We need steel cables. The interests of ordinary people must come first. Period.
As everyone should by now be aware, the coronavirus crisis is not just a public health crisis. It’s a jobs and income crisis, a small-business crisis, a child care crisis, a poverty crisis. In a real sense, it is a dress rehearsal for the future. What this crisis plainly demonstrates is the critical importance of investment in the resilience and equity of social and technical systems. It bears repeating: The very idea of government and the public good have been the targets of a decades-long ideological assault. The result? There is absolutely no slack in any of our systems; a shock can disrupt the lives of millions. It should remind every car- or homeowner of what they already know: Preventive maintenance is always worthwhile.
Perhaps the most important lesson of the coronavirus is that if we don’t prepare now, and start thinking about how to stop problems before it’s too late, we’re risking everything we care about: our homes, our jobs, and the health of our loved ones. This is where the virus has something very important to teach us—if we’re willing to learn.
The climate crisis is going to be many, many times worse. It may happen more slowly, but let’s not kid ourselves. Greater disease transmission, food shortages, energy blackouts, floods, homelessness, joblessness, species extinction—each will stagger us and then do so again.
You have to ask yourself, why are our political leaders unwilling to take serious action on climate? They know it will be too late before too long. So what’s going on?
We live in a hyper-capitalist system that rewards and even demands short-term thinking by political and business leaders. Time after time, political and corporate power brokers put their short-term interests ahead of the long-term health and economic security of all. The crude right wing in American life and media (Fox News and others) gaslights America on this topic; they endlessly claim that pro-climate activists are out-of-touch elitists, while they are the true guardians of the (white) working class. The more sophisticated types—the neoliberals who have dominated economic policy for 40 years—hide behind an ideological smokescreen to argue that theirs is the only path, that another world is simply not possible. Fortunately, the Sanders and Warren campaigns stuck a dagger in that enduring lie.
Republicans in the US Senate did not know that a virus was coming. They would no doubt say that had they known, they would not have supported cuts to CDC staffing and research. Still, anyone with an ounce of foresight took the precisely opposite position in favor of continued funding; they know we have a CDC for a reason. The world is complicated. We have to think ahead. Science is the essential tool for doing so.
It goes without saying that we desperately need to change course in order to avert the worst impacts of climate change. Fortunately, what’s needed is not mysterious, but it is hard and is definitely not short-term. We can save our climate by investing in jobs policies that will transform and improve manufacturing, agriculture, electrification, transportation, housing, infrastructure, care work—and virtually every aspect of our economy. The relevant question is whether we do so in a way that will help working-class, middle-class, and poor Americans first, not last. This is how we take responsibility for the world our children and grandchildren will inherit and inhabit.
Those same Senate Republicans have been Trump’s most important line of defense, joining him in his stance against climate change, public health, the public good, and reality. It does not seem an overstatement to assert that these senators are drenched in shame—and will soon have the deaths of thousands of Americans on their consciences. But it won’t suffice to merely replace them with Democrats who strive for “capitalism with a human face.” The virus has only underlined how deeply unequal and immoral our society is, with wealthy people able to ride out the storm much more easily than the rest of us. The desire for unlimited private wealth and power that characterizes America today will overwhelm our ecosystem just as the coronavirus is overwhelming our health care system.
Luckily it’s not too late. We can flatten the curve on climate change too. It starts by altering the balance of power in Washington.