The American Crisis

These are the times that try men’s souls. “Try” meant “test” when Thomas Paine wrote those words.

We’re having an extraordinary economic crisis, entwined with an extraordinary health crisis. While America was already undergoing a crisis of the soul. A political and leadership crisis that was also a moral one, testing the very principles this nation stands for.

All this will end. But the world will be different.

We’re not hearing much now about limited government. I’m no government-loving “progressive,” but even libertarians recognize a need for government to protect us in situations like this, organizing and mobilizing a societal response. But unfortunately we’re also seeing why the big modern bureaucratic state is distrusted. It’s not size that counts so much as how you use the thing.

China’s authoritarian regime sneers at governments hamstrung by democratic accountability. China was indeed unfettered in imposing draconian measures to contain the virus. On the other hand, it wouldn’t have been such a big problem if they hadn’t started out silencing doctors who raised the alarm. China also failed to properly alert the world. Thus its regime is very culpable.

So is ours. Even given China’s guilt, the disaster here did not have to happen. Had we done what South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore did — merely acting competently. Instead, America’s government bumbled and fumbled in a disorganized manner for almost two months because Trump refused to heed experts ringing alarm bells. This tragic fact is now well documented by multiple responsible sources. It cost us many thousands of lives, untold other human suffering, and trillions of dollars.

So a key lesson is the importance of competent, intelligent, responsible, sane leadership. That’s up to voters. So far I don’t see that lesson sinking in.

COVID-19 threatens our national security. Trump fetishizes the military, imagining this conveys strength. Actually the bulk of our giant defense budget is oriented toward re-fighting WWII (all those costly aircraft carriers, etc.), not the real threats of the modern world. Like pandemics. Wasting all those resources on useless “defense” actually weakens us. Spending a tiny fraction of that money on defense against threats like COVID-19 could have made all the difference. We didn’t do it.

This American failure is not invisible to other countries, who are suffering in consequence. They expected better. A real blow to our international standing.

Meantime, big government is getting bigger. The crisis prodded Congress into the kind of bipartisan action that seemed unimaginable just weeks ago, expanding government’s role in both size and scope to support the economy in ways also unimaginable weeks ago. We may think this is just a temporary emergency response. The bipartisanship already is fading. But expansions of government don’t have a tendency to reverse themselves. The idea of government relieving businesses of downside risks, and subsidizing paychecks, may stick around, with large implications. Not socialism, exactly; more like state capitalism. And the bailouts seem more accessible to big businesses than small ones, accelerating a trend toward consolidation, as against the more dynamic small-firm end of the business spectrum.

The government is throwing around trillions of dollars very fast and without preparation or forethought. A massive program like this ought to have been preceded by a careful legislative process with input from divergent viewpoints. Of course this is an emergency situation. But oversight is definitely lacking. In fact, Trump’s already fired the inspector general who’d been tasked with keeping tabs on the handouts. Why? It’s hardly paranoid to foresee massive abuse and corruption. Surely there must be an investigation of where all the money is going. Trump will foam at the mouth screaming “witch hunt.”

This is also changing us as a society. Sociologist Robert Putnam’s 2000 book Bowling Alone pointed up a trend toward atomization. That preceded the smartphone era, which has prompted vast handwringing about growing solipsism. Strangely, on one level, it’s all about human connectedness, with people fixated on their phones mainly for stimuli from others. Yet while our Facebook “friend” rosters grow, real friendships contract. (I’m baffled by people obsessing over online content concerning others they hardly know.)

Now we have “social distancing” — as if that hadn’t already been an apt way to describe what was happening. In-person communication being supplanted by virtual communication. If this were a battle between the two, the former has just suffered a devastating strategic reverse. Now it’s actually wrong for us to socialize in person, it’s bad for public health!

Our society is built upon our webs of human interconnectedness, embodied in the term “social capital.” A key element of that is social trust. It’s the very basic understanding that you can walk down the street with no expectation that a passer-by will bash you on the head and grab your stuff. Or, more prosaically, that when you buy packaged food it won’t be poisoned. Et cetera, et cetera. A vast range of ways we trust that society will work as it should. This can’t be taken for granted, it was built up over thousands of years.

Countries where social trust — and, in particular, trust in government and other institutions — is high (like South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore) have seen commensurately high levels of citizen cooperation with public health directives.

But polls have shown that Americans’ social trust is eroding. It’s not that people are actually becoming less trustworthy. It’s that more of us believe others are less trustworthy. This can become self-fulfilling if we act in ways that exhibit less trust. The decline in social trust may be partly due to reduced face-to-face interaction. And it’s aggravated by having two political tribes each believing the other consists of bad people who threaten everything that’s good and holy.

And now, we look at other people we encounter in the street, in stores, etc., and view them as literally potential threats to us. “What if that guy has the virus?” What if this kind of distrust becomes ingrained, even after the crisis ends?

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