As with the major plagues, wars, natural disasters, and economic collapses of the past, the COVID-19 pandemic stands to change (or accelerate) the course of history, fundamentally altering our political economy and society. In the midst of this change, Fareed Zakaria offers us Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World to guide us as we look to construct a better, fairer, and more stable world in the wake of the pandemic.
Zakaria’s ten lessons can be arranged to cover the following four overarching lessons (as I’m interpreting them) for the United States as it navigates the post-pandemic world.
1. Embrace globalization and restore international collaboration
Global trade, travel, and the economic and demographic interconnectedness of nations is an unstoppable force. We cannot isolate ourselves from the wider world—even if we wanted to; we can only work to take advantage of globalization’s benefits (or else fall behind to other countries) while better preparing for its risks and compensating those that lose out. We should also remember that post-World War II international collaboration has a strong track record: 75 years (and counting) of relative peace among the great powers.
The US response to the pandemic, however—being rooted in isolationism and nationalism—has been puzzling. As Zakaria wrote:
“From a historical perspective, it is strange to watch this crisis make leaders so narrow-minded and nationalistic. The pain of the pandemic is real and deep, but it doesn’t quite compare to the period between 1914 and 1945—a great war that ripped Europe apart, a pandemic far deadlier than COVID, a global depression, the rise of totalitarianism, another world war that destroyed Europe yet again and laid waste to Japanese cities with nuclear weapons—all told, over 150 million dead. And yet, after those hellish crises, leaders pushed for more international collaboration. Having witnessed the costs of unbridled nationalism and narrow self-interest, the warriors and statesmen who survived believed that they had a duty to create a world that did not lapse back into nihilistic competition.”
This should all be obvious, namely that the prospects of cooperation among nations holds far greater promise than perpetual conflict. The alternative to international collaboration is unrestricted nationalistic competition, the perils of which have apparently been forgotten and are greatly underrated.
The US response this past year has just made no sense. For example, in response to the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) mishandling of the pandemic response, the US withdrew from the organization, as if allowing the organization to wither away is the better alternative. The proper response would be to recognize that the WHO is underfunded and understaffed and to increase funding and to become more involved in the restructuring of an indispensable organization.
If the US continues to turn away from the wider world, this is going to (1) create chaos and disorder and/or (2) allow other countries to fill the void and collectively outpace the US in several areas.
2. Reduce inequality and restore the dignity or work
Inequality in the US is rampant and unacceptable. In addition to high levels of inequality in income and wealth (which can only be addressed through more progressive taxation), the pandemic has highlighted the inequality of access to health care, demonstrated by the fact that the wealthy received priority access to COVID-19 testing along with the latest and best treatments. It’s time that the US follows other developed nations and adopts some form of universal health care. (The United States is the only one of 33 developed countries to not have universal health care.)
On the job front, the pandemic has made clear the value of “essential workers” to the proper functioning of society, and has highlighted the fact that all jobs have value and contribute to the common good, regardless of the economic value the market assigns to them. Grocery clerks, sanitation workers, teachers, and nurses—while not earning the exorbitant salaries of society’s elites (e.g., hedge fund managers)—provide tangible benefits to society that should be better recognized and rewarded. The tax system should be restructured to better reward these tangible, productive positions by shifting the tax burden away from work and onto consumption, wealth, and financial speculation.
3. Demand better government, not less government
Free market fundamentalism—the modern version of the “divine right of kings”—is dangerous and outdated. It cedes over ultimate authority to the market, which consistently undervalues social goods and creates inequality and resentment. Other countries have more effective governments because its citizens know that the question is not the size of government, but rather the quality of government in providing efficient and valuable services to its citizens. The governments of several countries around the world handled the COVID-19 crisis far better than the US—along with much else—and it is about time we started to learn from them.
Several Northern European countries (Denmark being the crowning example) have largely applied most of Zakaria’s ten lessons with great success. How did they do it?
Not by resorting to communism or socialism (using the historical definition of socialism as state control of the means of production), but rather through better-regulated, progressive capitalism. These countries are reaping the benefits of free trade, competition, and private ownership (capitalism) while taking active steps to reduce inequality.
Take Denmark as an example. Zakaria demonstrates how the citizens of Denmark have much higher tax rates compared to the US but receive better services and access to health care and education. As Zakaria wrote:
“Imagine that you’re an average family. You and your spouse have a child, and make the mean household income. You could choose to live in either America or Denmark. In high-tax Denmark, your disposable income after taxes and transfers would be around $15,000 lower than in the States. But in return for your higher tax bill, you would get universal health care (one with better outcomes than in the US), free education right up through the best graduate schools, worker retraining programs on which the state spends seventeen times more as a percentage of GDP than what is spent in America, as well as high-quality infrastructure, mass transit, and many beautiful public parks and other spaces. Danes also enjoy some 550 more hours of leisure time a year than Americans do. If the choice were put this way—you can take the extra $15,000 but have to work longer hours, take fewer vacation days, and fend for yourself on health care, education, retraining, and transport—I think most Americans would choose the Danish model.”
Note that the Danish do not have less freedom due to higher taxes, nor do they live under the oppression of state-controlled communism. Quite the contrary: they live under a robust capitalist system with the freedom to pursue the life and career of their own choosing (and are rewarded in the market for their efforts). But they do so with a greater sense of the common good and under a government that provides valuable services to all and that provides more equal opportunity to all, so that there is less inequality and greater overall social mobility. What rational individual (who isn’t already wealthy and privileged) would pick the US model over this?
Denmark has combined capitalism with a more robust social safety net, better services, and greater redistribution schemes to ensure greater equality of opportunity and income. As a result, its citizens trust their government, trust in science and institutions, and are ultimately happier (Denmark ranked 2nd in the World Happiness Report 2020).
The US, by contrast, has extreme levels of inequality, low social mobility, intense political polarization, and an unhappy population (the US ranked 18th in the same World Happiness Report 2020). This is the result of over-reliance on the market and the demonization of government. As Zakaria wrote:
“For four decades, America has largely been run by people who openly pledge to destroy the very government they lead. Is it any wonder that they have succeeded?”
In the wake of the pandemic, we can only hope that four decades of market fundamentalism comes to an end and a new era of progressive capitalism—built on the Scandinavian model—is pursued. Whether or not this will happen is an open question, and considering the country’s past, it is far from guaranteed, especially considering just how deeply money has infiltrated politics and elections.
4. Reform our educational system to change our culture
The hard reality is that the US population is largely scientifically illiterate, overly skeptical of experts, and prone to conspiracy theories. This is nothing if not a failure of our schools to teach the appropriate critical thinking skills and scientific literacy. By teaching to the test and over-relying on rote learning, students are told what to think but not how to think. In a world moving fast into the digital era with major advances in science and technology, a scientifically illiterate population resistant to change will spell disaster for the country.
While I mostly agree with Zakaria’s assessment of the impact of technology on our society—including the possibility of artificial intelligence (AI) replacing jobs and creating massive levels of unemployment and inequality if we do not implement some kind of retraining programs or universal basic income schemes—his views on general AI posing an existential threat to humanity are overblown. He mentions more than once the possibility of humanity being overwhelmed by general AI in some sort of apocalyptic sci-fi scenario. This, as far as I can tell, is pure fantasy.
As psychologist Steven Pinker and others have pointed out—in addition to being very far away from developing general AI—intelligence does not necessarily translate to evil, and that if we become smart enough to build these incredible machines, we should be smart enough to test them and to employ the appropriate safeguards before giving them control of the world. It simply makes no sense to say that these machines will be smart enough to take over the world but dumb enough to do so by accident, and we forget that implementing safety protocols into our technology is a key part of the engineering profession.
Finally, the complexity of the human brain makes it difficult to get robots to do the simplest of tasks—Pinker uses the example of lifting a glass without crushing it. So something any four-year-old can do becomes a near-impossible engineering problem. The human brain is a product of millions of years of evolution and it is just not realistic to think that we can build a machine from scratch with the complexity to think in the same way that humans can.
Ultimately, the question is, will we take advantage of this opportunity to change society for the better? The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the aspects of our society that require change and the possibility of the government stepping in to create that change. But nothing is inevitable or written in stone. Our future is entirely dependent on our actions, choices, and votes, and it seems that we are likely to take one of two paths forward: (1) toward a nationalistic, individualistic society characterized by growing levels of inequality and resentment, or else (2) toward a more open, equal, inclusive, and collaborative society re-integrated into the larger world.