Brave New World?

The pandemic foreplay we’re muddling through confronts each of us with life-threatening risk and prospective opportunities for renewal. Anyone not rethinking their own life, human life in general, a rationale for governing, and the natural world that sustains us is either paralyzed with fear or in a spiritual burrow.

The existential question we must reconcile is whether our post-pandemic world will continue to be about enriching ourselves or about rethinking our democracy, building and strengthening community, and healing the natural world that sustains it.

This life-threatening and economy-exploding pandemic forces the existential question. Are we about the accretion of wealth or the well-being of people? Our current crisis of governing exemplifies these warring philosophies.

We mustn’t lose this opportunity to reimagine a civilization in which human and natural life is sustained and becomes the basis of an equitable economic revival.

Eleven areas where we must reimagine our future are:

  • Education
  • Infrastructure/public transport
  • Commerce
  • Employment
  • Health Care/Pharma
  • Housing
  • Food supply/agriculture
  • Criminal Justice
  • Defense
  • Governing

Education: The necessity of social distancing has closed our schools and colleges, most of which are overwhelmed with deferred maintenance and infrastructure carrying-costs that taxpayers, students, and donors can no longer afford. We must reimagine the public and private educational systems in ways that reduce their dependence on residency, offer more flexibility time-wise, and reduce discrimination based on tuition. We must develop tele-education standards using broadband networks while ensuring that all students have access to terminals and networks. Most important, we must preserve the essence of educational quality – teacher excellence and personal mentorship.

Infrastructure: Before we rebuild our nation’s roads and bridges and re-smog our urban centers, let’s reimagine a 21st century public transport system that moves us from home to downtown, city to city, and country to country efficiently. Our romance with the car must end, except where it remains the only travel option, and then it must be minimally polluting.

Commerce: In my lifetime, retail has migrated from downtown to malls to e-commerce. We must rethink everything from interruptible supply-chains to access and delivery options. Local retail will reemerge as a viable option for consumable and repeatable purchases, whereas lower-trafficked goods will remain online. Personal service, advice, and price will be the determinants of what’s local and what’s online.

Employment: Automation will continue, consuming menial jobs but opening more sophisticated ones in I.T. and engineering. National security will require us to regulate out-sourcing: 90% of our pharmaceuticals come from India and China with inadequate regulatory scrutiny. Manufacturing employment will decline, but sustain or increase in agriculture and the non-profit sectors, and recover as needed in the government sector. It will surge in service sectors like health care and education. And we will need to join the rest of the civilized world, compensating, while we retrain those whom the business sector renders jobless.

Health care: If this pandemic has taught us anything, we know we need a national health care system accessible to all. We must plan for future pandemics, natural and man-made disasters. Wealth should not be a determinant of care; illness and injury should. We must also optimize our health care delivery networks, eliminating competition and better deploying individual practices, local clinics, critical-care and tertiary-care hospitals consistent with population densities. Medical education must be affordable, offering debt-forgiveness to attract more providers. Telemedicine technologies will triage and alleviate emergency admissions. Pharma, its supply chain, and abuse of intellectual property transfers must be re-regulated. For example, taxpayer investments (NIH) in drug development and trials should be repaid by Pharma or be denied patent protection.

Minimal housing must be considered an obligation if not a right and be provided by government. Half-million homeless Americans is a stain on our country.

Food supply: We must reimagine our national food supply and its delivery systems. The food industry has de-natured raw, nutritious natural food contributing to the obesity of 70 million Americans by secreting addictive sugar, salt, and transfats into their offerings. We must support local farm-to-plate supply chains, encourage local agriculture, and reregulate the use of toxic chemicals in industrial agriculture and foods. In an economy that wastes 30-40 per cent of its food supply, we can and must right-size supply and demand, restore nutrition, and eliminate hunger.

Criminal Justice: We jail a greater percentage (2.3 million) of our population than any major society including Russia and China. We spend $80 billion annually on supervision, confinement, and rehabilitation of those in jail or on parole. We’re beginning a national dialogue about moving that investment upstream and reducing it over time by investing in mental health care, addiction treatment, early treatment of adverse childhood experiences, and reducing poverty.

Defense: The final 2020 version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is $738  billion dollars ($2200/American). Meanwhile an aircraft carrier with 4000 men and women onboard is a sitting target for Covid 19 infection or an enemy aircraft attack. Former Sec. of Defense Jim Matthis and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullen agree that the largest single security threat to the United States in not a hostile government but our national debt. Most of the budget is for procurement not personnel readiness. As Ike warned, “beware the military-industrial complex.” Future wars will be less about blood and smoke and more about infecting national grids and financial systems and spreading disinformation. We need to adjust our understanding of national defense in a new world.

Finally, we must rethink the appropriate role of a democratic government, its values, expectations of its citizens, and benefits. The chaos that ensued when Reagan and Thatcher declared government “not the solution but the problem” persists today. Is the argument really philosophical or one that merely camouflages a means of allocating additional wealth to those in power?

The current crisis is teaching us that the general well-being of citizens, their families, and communities is a prerequisite for a healthy economy. So, if government has a role in our well-being, we must answer the question… for whom?