It is hard to imagine this crisis getting worse. But it will. Much, much worse. While we struggle to cope with the pain, suffering and sacrifice it generates every day, another question looms. What will our nation be after this grim chapter is ended?
The data and the projections are clear. The White House is estimating that 100,000-240,000 of us will be dead before this is over. If we do not rigorously apply sound measures to contain the virus, the number could be many times that. In the past two weeks, nearly 10 million people have applied for unemployment benefits. The St. Louis Fed predicts that before this is over 47 million Americans will be out of work and the unemployment rate will be 32 percent—half-again higher than it has ever been before.
Goldman Sachs forecast the economy would contract 24 percent in the second quarter, the worst such downturn in history. For the year, they foresee GDP shrinking by more than 6 percent, the greatest such fall since the end of World War II. The savings of millions have been crushed as 2020 has seen all five of the biggest drops in the 124-year history of the Dow Jones Industrial Average.
We are staring down the barrel of the worst public health crisis since the Spanish Flu of 1918, the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, and the worst unemployment crisis in our history. All this is compounded by what can only be considered the greatest leadership crisis our nation has ever faced, with the delays, missteps, lies, and failures of the president and his team clearly having made this very bad situation much worse than it had to be.
By the time this is over every one of us will have felt its pain through the loss or illness of friends and family, through economic blows, and through the anxiety and uncertainty such periods bring. And when, finally, it is all over, we will have to rebuild together.
Right now, we are in the teeth of the crisis. The focus is on emergency measures. But in a matter of a few months, our attention will have to turn not only to reversing the damage that has been done but to applying lessons learned to ensure we never again have to endure the same kind of disaster.
As it happens this challenge will arise precisely as the nation considers who will be its next president and who will serve in the Senate and the House. It is now clear that no issue will be more important to voters than which party and which candidates offer the best plan for our recovery and for rebuilding America. Everything else that you may have thought would be important, from whether or not the president is a traitor to his racism, from the relentless GOP push to pack to the courts with right-wing ideologues or the climate crisis, will be made secondary to this, the mother of all kitchen table issues.
Will America choose the self-acclaimed master developer, Donald Trump? Will America become Trump’s next great development project, following in the footsteps of the failed Trump Taj Mahal? Will we opt for Trump’s Great American Gated Community, Financial Market Casino and Members Only Golf Club? (Imagine plenty of marble, gold plated fixtures, white men, and a steady stream of big-time bonuses for corporate chiefs and billionaires.) Or will it be drawn to a different plan, presented by Joe Biden and the Democratic Party, one that has yet to fully coalesce?
We already have some ideas about what the Trump plan may look like. The $2.2 trillion relief bill signed into law on March 27, while containing relief money for individuals, was heavily loaded with benefits for corporations including a $500 billion fund to be directed to “needy” companies by the Treasury Department. Bailouts for airline companies, aircraft manufacturers, hotels, real estate investors, and casino operators have all been discussed.
Trump has taken the advice of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in resisting directing companies to produced needed health-care supplies. Trump has pushed back on reopening Obamacare markets which might have provided health-care access for millions who will lose it as a result of the crisis. He has used the crisis to distract from a recently announced sweeping rollback of Obama-era car emissions rules.
The guiding principles of Trump’s response to the crisis have been the Reaganite doctrine that less is more when it comes to government, that government is the enemy, a waster of public funds and that whenever possible solutions should be left to markets.
Trump tweeted this past week that he wanted to spend another couple of trillion dollars on infrastructure, taking advantage of the cheap price of borrowing these days. While this sounds sensible, the devil will be in the details. For example, past GOP proposals have been heavily dependent on the idea that private sector companies build and own the infrastructure (rather than having revenues from tolls, for example, go to states or the federal government). Once again, while jobs are created, the biggest winners are often companies.
As for the Democrats, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has emphasized the need to deal with the crisis first, but she too has indicated, as has Biden, that a recovery plan will be essential. Both have also indicated infrastructure should be part of that plan as the U.S. has failed to invest in its infrastructure for decades, and it is estimated that the gap between the infrastructure we have and the infrastructure we need over the next decade may be over $4 trillion, with over $2 trillion in projects that currently have no funding source.
The tone of the Biden and Pelosi vision is already much different from Trump’s. It is much more oriented toward meeting the needs of individuals and workers rather than companies. Both Democrats have spoken of the need to provide health-care coverage to all who need it. Biden has mentioned the importance of investing in green infrastructure as an element of his plans going forward.
Both have spoken of the vital importance of creating new jobs to replace those that the crisis may ultimately destroy. While it was Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren who among the Democratic presidential candidates were calling for “New Deal”-like programs or for the “Green New Deal” associated with voices like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, it looks as though due to circumstances, the responsibility for crafting such a sweeping program will fall on Biden, Pelosi and the Democratic establishment.
But whereas they have been criticized in the past for not being bold enough, the crisis has motivated them to be much more expansive in their visions. One factor that is already influencing internal discussions is the degree to which the crisis has also revealed the depth of the flaws in America’s health-care system and social safety net.
As severe, for example, as the crisis has been in Europe in places like Italy and Spain, no Italian or Spaniard is worried about going bankrupt paying for health care. Few Europeans worry that if their governments demand they stay home from work that they will not get paid. The governments there all see such provisions as core to their reason for existence.
The Reconstruction that came at the end of the Civil War was a mixed bag of retribution and racist initiatives in addition to programs to repair a shattered nation. But the nation emerged as an industrial powerhouse and was soon knit together with national railroads, national industries, and new opportunities for all. In the wake of the Great Depression came the New Deal and programs on which we depend until this day.
In the wake of World War II not only did we work hard to adapt the industries of war to peacetime needs, including our last major series of investments in infrastructure, but we also remade the security architecture of government and put in place international institutions like the U.N., World Bank, IMF and others that helped pave the way toward peaceful development and global integration.
Today our attention is focused on staying healthy and caring for those who are sick. But come this fall we will be presented with a stark choice. On the one hand will be a vision of America that serves the interests of big companies, cuts protections for the environment and for individuals, and measures success by stock market averages and CEO bonuses. On the other will be one that chooses to invest in people and to seek to repair the glaring deficiencies in our system that have produced so many casualties of this crisis. One will foster the illusion of prosperity and strength while continuing to promote the kind of programs that have produced an explosion in inequality over the past four decades. The other might help restore real strength to America and real promise to the American Dream.