With 4% of the world’s population, why does the United States have 32% of the world’s COVID deaths — eight times the average? Long fraying institutions have rendered us vulnerable to crises. Most other developed countries have fared better with health care and less costly education. COVID-19 has pushed us to a tipping point, with unemployment now on par with the Great Depression.
Ongoing changes through the decades have converged with the pandemic. We have increasingly sought short-term solutions that stress quarterly earnings reports rather than long-range preparation of our country 30 years hence — in short, the country our children and grandchildren will inherit. The pace of day-to-day living has contributed to epidemics of heart disease, diabetes and depression, rendering us more susceptible to pandemics.
The planet & privatization
A critical threshold has been reached that requires solving planet-wide problems. Why retreat from the global order that America engineered and built when closer integration can bring greater benefits? Rather than sinking into antiquated nationalism, future prosperity depends upon worldwide supply chains, markets and, yes, coordinated responses to climate change and health issues. Instead, we are pulled by nationalism — “Make America Great Again” — into going it alone.
The idea of commonwealth represents shared resources, shared human capacity and shared destiny for the general welfare of a community. By seeking common good, this model makes available public education, affordable health care, clean air and water and safe communities. Yet aspects of commonwealth have been redirected to enhance wealth of the few. In his pathfinding “The Power Elite” (1956), Waco-born sociologist C. Wright Mills shows how parts of the commonwealth have been siphoned off for private capitalization. Like the one-percenters of today, a few among the power elite “make decisions for the everyday worlds of ordinary men and women.” Further on: “In such appropriations, the industrial development of the United States was underwritten by outright gifts” from the people’s domain. Governments have given land free to railroads, paid the cost of shipbuilding and underwritten bulk mail-outs for private companies. Officials even ruled that coal and iron on public lands were not mineral rights and thus could be auctioned off.
The U.S. military stabilizes much of the world so that businesses can market abroad. As beneficiaries of this largesse, great corporations have financed political action committees for officials who made (and make) these sweetheart deals. To add indignity to injury, corporations recently have been ruled to have the constitutional freedoms and protections once reserved for individual citizens.
The seeds of the global market and the United Nations emerged from the chaos of World War II. Franklin Roosevelt extrapolated the freedoms of the United States as a model to integrate the world. People everywhere would enjoy the freedoms of speech, worship, from want and fear. The United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. This provided a legal basis for international civic society. With the American-engineered Marshall Plan (1948), a nascent world market formed. International trade paid great dividends; with 6% of the world’s population during the 1950s-60s, the United States produced 40% of its wealth.
However, the golden age of prosperity sputtered during the oil embargo of 1973-74 and the resulting stagflation. Multinational corporations moved manufacturing overseas and capitalized less expensive labor. Globalization began as ideas, goods and labor flowed across national borders.
During the 1980s, President Reagan deflated what remained of the New Deal for market-based solutions. Public health care was farmed out to the private sector so that this part of the social commonwealth became further capitalized. Costly social programs were cut, along with environmental regulations, as monetarism stabilized runaway inflation.
Smaller federal government allowed corporations freer rein to maneuver as semi-autonomous entities. Profit could be sought anywhere, so that corporate outreach penetrated markets worldwide, heretofore protected by indigenous laws. Efficiency reduced prices for goods. But little of all this profit flowed back to the public sector here and in host countries. Meanwhile, foreign entrepreneurs quickly learned corporate ways, as American-styled business schools sprang up everywhere. Competition intensified between American and foreign firms, and the commonwealth ideal was further gutted.
By the new millennium, America’s economic balance of trade deficit weakened as the European Union and China gained market share. After the housing market collapse in 2008, the percentage of a worker’s income devoted to homeownership and college education rose; student debt mounted. Buying private health care was beyond the reach of more and more people; wealth distribution bifurcated into “haves” and “have-nots.” General despair spread along with opioids.
Branding and intercollegiate athletics drove prices on campuses. State support of public colleges dropped, pricing out more low- and moderate-income students. In the world’s “breadbasket,” 20% of American children went hungry. Taken together, monetarism had swung so far that the nation had lost capacity and even much of its moral grounding.
History shows that societies that concentrate wealth at the top and stymie upward mobility lose flexibility and soon collapse. If prosperity today is generated through innovation for markets everywhere and global markets remain crucial frontiers, why is President Trump steering the nation inward? For all the flags and all the fiery rhetoric, “America First” has failed to invest in capacity building. By contrast, the Chinese have retooled their research laboratories and universities; they’ve even undertaken an ambitious Belt and Road initiative to forge partnerships across Asia and Africa, taking tactical advantage of our neglect and indifference.
More global partners enable greater growth. Yet President Trump has destabilized long-enduring political alliances, especially among confused and disillusioned NATO allies; he has discarded the Paris climate accord and Iran nuclear deal, and initiated tariffs against China, till recently a market for our farmers and ranchers. Does bullying our partners really bring greater security and prosperity? True, the Trump administration is riding a populist reaction that favors unilateralism in globalization, along with appealing to such conservative rallying points as hierarchy, tradition and obedience to religious and political authority (see “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion” by Jonathan Haidt, 2012). Till the Trump administration made them unwelcome, the children of the international elite would attend prep schools and universities in the United States (and brought funds from abroad with them, too). Interactions with classmates from across the globe furthered cross-cultural understanding of a basic humanity. Alas, America has lost cachet.
Yes, isolationism defends America’s cultural integrity against cultural relativism and foreign influence, critically important to some but no prescription for long-term prosperity and peace. While stressing family values conjures idealized, supposedly simpler lifestyles before influences from abroad changed all, the idea that foreign governments should be abruptly pushed aside recall a Colt-toting film hero of the Old West.
From past civilizations, the lack of keeping pace with peer countries usually leads to downsizing, then fragmentation. The ensuing chaotic interlude is called an interregnum. Along these lines, President Trump has abrogated leadership to the governors in ongoing pandemic challenges without demonstrating the leadership to make all work as one. Blue and red state polarity has divided the nation as local power elites consolidate power through gerrymandering and voter suppression. One is reminded how ancient Rome stopped expanding, grew inflexible and divided into Western and Eastern empires before falling prey to their illusions and corruption and being overrun by barbarians. Ancient Egypt first broke into Upper and Lower Egypt and finally into 40 provinces (nomes) during the interregnums between the Early, Middle and Late Kingdoms.
In agricultural civilizations such as the Romans, ancient Egyptians or Mayans, governmental demise caused a loss of upwards of 70% of the population. However, with modern industrial agriculture and automated food delivery systems, this figure may only predict the percentage of people severely impacted but not starving. Charities such as food banks provide a stopgap to starvation.
So where is modern civilization heading? Today, even with climate change and overpopulation, the global market remains irreversibly interdependent. Cultural wars in the United States stem from visceral reactions to a traditional world gone awry. The unsavory topic of a failed state has entered the national conversation (e.g. “We Are Living in a Failed State,” George Packer, The Atlantic, April 20, 2020). Unlike failed civilizations of the past, however, global media interconnect the world into ongoing debate about what might benefit the most people. The United States will thus be pulled along in wider global currents.
Sinking out of sight
In one scenario, a trend toward authoritarian corporate states, where the interests of corporations control the state, will continue. And capital-holders everywhere reciprocally support their own interests as a global overclass. Overpopulation and incessant automation render the lower social strata increasingly superfluous. The American blue-collar class thus joins counterparts worldwide as the reserve army of labor, employed during growth and furloughed during downturns. Online retailing will displace department stores, as Walmart pushed aside mom-and-pop businesses. However, such overspecialization in size is not without peril. When giant meat processors like Tyson stop operations, hundreds of pig farmers go bankrupt. Regardless of the duration of the recession, power brokers and corporations with the most assets will emerge and continue to direct the economy with little substantive change.
At all levels, education is a strategic investment in America’s future. Irrespective of political leanings, education must be more inclusive in training the next generation to solve problems. Unfortunately, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has diverted funds meant for struggling public schools — the commonwealth— to private and religious education. Teaching enables all other professions, such as finance and engineering, and must be supported and updated.
Assuming a corporate state can be avoided, liberals seek to loosen hierarchical constraints so that ordinary citizens can continue to move forward. Legal fairness safeguards diversity. Cultural diversity is the idea pool that provides the raw material for change. Cooperation among countries reaps greater rewards than conflict, even if overpopulation and climate change push immigration. We may think of the emerging global civilization as many distinctive cultures advancing together.
Shelter in purpose
Fortunately, the success of sheltering in place attests to a vibrant sense of common purpose, which can be creatively tapped as we head toward the light at the end of the tunnel. With our GDP in tatters, opportunities must be provided for the younger generation. As tax revenues for local government fall, new graduates could help rebuild a withering social infrastructure. A bill by Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware would establish national service for young people and have them trace personal contacts for people with the coronavirus, dispense food, tutor elementary school students, etc. The vast unemployed in the hard-hit retailing and travel industries, among others, could also be retrained in government-corporate partnerships.
Yet in solving perennial underemployment, a once unthinkable solution — a guaranteed basic income — has gained currency. Higher taxation of the top few percentiles could fund such initiatives and repay the trillions of stimulus redistributions. These recall FDR’s programs that brought disenfranchised workers back into the commonwealth and laid the foundation of global civil society.
John Fox has served as professor of anthropology, chair of international studies, member of the central administration and edited the Journal of Social Affairs at an American University in the Persian Gulf.
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