Blogs > Steve Hochstadt > The Crystal Ball is Broken

Apr 26, 2020

The Crystal Ball is Broken

What will next year be like? I used to think that everything depended on the November election. Aside from politics, my life would be much the same. My pension and Social Security would keep rolling in. My children would keep working as their little children slowly grew up. My town would remain unchanged, offering the same amusements and shopping and restaurants. My friends would still be there for me and me for them, whether we hugged or sent emails. The world would continue to deteriorate towards a climate crisis, but slowly, one species, one more storm or drought, one flood at a time.

I was not naive, but I was wrong. Everything will be different.

Well, not everything. Unless this catastrophe is even bigger than I can imagine, my retirement funds will remain the same. But there will be much less to spend them on. The restaurants we like, local family establishments, will be decimated. The one coffee shop in town may be gone, along with the one bookstore, the donut shop that isn’t Dunkin, and other family businesses that could not survive months without revenue. The national and international chains that offer the same processed foods, the same bland products, the same standardized greetings and sales, will take up even more of our economic space.

Our social contract might be broken. I mean the unspoken contract to just keep going and keep funneling money upwards between the very rich who make most of the financial decisions and the masses who barely get by. Who knows what that might mean? An uprising of the no-longer-getting-by, but in which direction? Towards stronger unions, higher minimum wages, better health care, a fairer tax system? Or more nationalism, more division, more demagoguery, more escape into guns and narrow religiosity and hate?

I don’t think that our current isolation will prove so attractive that everyone will continue to stay inside, reduce all communication to the virtual, fall deeper into the rabbit hole of the computer/smart phone/tablet. But the younger generations, already used to ignoring the world to stare at pixels, may become even more isolated from reality.

Will we be inspired by the selflessness of the first responders, newly online teachers, and other caregivers to value them more, with something more than 7 PM applause? Will we realize that buying new things to replace the nearly new things bought yesterday doesn’t improve anything but the bottom line of the people who are telling us every day that we need new things to make our lives better? Will we trust scientists and doctors and professors more and conmen and professional liars less?

Will we prepare ourselves more thoughtfully for the next crisis or the unfathomable climate disaster? Or just breathe a sign of relief that we made it through this one, and go back to listening to the loud-mouthed know-it-alls, whose confidence never dims, but whose stories change every day?

Will we demand a health care system that really tries to keep everyone healthy? Or go back to rationing health care by income, by race, and by geography, kept in place by a political system that rations power and votes the same way?

Will politicians still be able to harvest votes by repeating ad nauseum that America is the greatest country on earth, pointing to their flag pins, while we mourn all those people who died because America wasn’t even close to the best at dealing with a global crisis?

What will be the new normal?

America changed after the Great Depression into a better America, where government tried to alleviate widespread economic suffering with programs that still didn’t do enough, but that many people today say we should reject. America changed after the crises of inequality of the 1960s, with programs against inequality that those same people today say we should reject. The voices that are being raised and will be raised about inequality, unfairness, and oligarchy will be countered by those same voices who use the word “great” to mean “shut up”, who meet facts about suffering with hatred, who wave guns at people in distress. Who will win?

If some of this language seems strong, look at the news story on the FOX News website about the possibility that Stacy Abrams will be Joe Biden’s pick for vice president. The story itself is unremarkable, much like the reporting on other media websites. What is notable are the comments. Open racism, attention to her body, more racism. These are the people who rely on FOX and love Trump. Perhaps not representative of all of those people, but still a lot of people who feel confirmed in their ugly prejudices by FOX and Trump and the Republican Party.

A NY Times reporter interviewed 20 experts about the long-term effects of the pandemic, but his article is still short on clarity about what the future will look like. Only one thing is clear – recovery to “normal life” will take a long time, well beyond the end of 2020.

An effective vaccine would be the magic bullet to end the danger of further infection. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the long-time director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who has been functioning as Trump’s main medical advisor and explainer, has repeatedly said that a vaccine will take at least a year to 18 months. His job as Trump’s mouthpiece is to be optimistic: the Times article is gloomier: “All the experts familiar with vaccine production agreed that that timeline was optimistic.”  Dr. Harvey V. Fineberg, former president of the National Academy of Medicine, said, “We face a doleful future.” 

Because of the mounting pressure to open up our shut-down society, it is likely that the virus will again spread in spots, leading again to shutdowns. We are likely to experience two years of openings and closings, unwarranted optimism and new peaks of death, accompanied by politically motivated arguments about what to do.

There are many hopeful predictions of permanent social, economic and political changes in the wake of this shock. More willingness to believe science, which could mean more willingness to tackle climate change. More attention to the economic inequalities which have led to very different death rates between black and white, rich and poor, which could mean more political will to attack those inequalities. The sudden overloading of our health care system might make universal health insurance more popular. Less pleasant are the possibilities that the psychological burdens of isolation on vulnerable families may lead to more domestic abuse, depression, and suicide.

An old Chinese saying goes something like this: “It’s better to be a dog in a peaceful time, than be a man in a chaotic period.” Neither dogs nor men can determine whether the times they live in are peaceful or chaotic. But we, men and women, can influence how we come out of this chaos.

I was wrong. It’s not about November. November will be merely a clue about the future of our country and our lives. As for what that future will be like, at the moment I haven’t a clue.

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