One of the wisest things economist Milton Friedman ever taught was that only a crisis — actual or perceived — produces real change. It is times of crisis that cause our preconceived beliefs and confirmation biases to get shaken and stirred. Things that weeks ago seemed politically impossible become politically inevitable. Countries and cultures mirror individual people in the sense that we usually learn a lot more from our challenges than we do from our victories.
For a large part of the world, we have yet to experience the worst brunt of the coronavirus pandemic. But there are many lessons that are already blindingly obvious. Unfortunately, some of these lessons should have been learned from previous crisis situations. The real question is whether we will be wise enough to learn them this time around, or choose ignorance and remain vulnerable to future disasters. Allow me to suggest a lesson plan. (A small part of this discussion is U.S.-centric. But most of it is applicable worldwide.)
Every country should have provisions in their employment system for sick leave. Not just isolated cases provided by enlightened companies, but as a standard for all employers to follow. Otherwise poor and even many middle-class people have to choose between two cruel alternatives: 1) Staying away from their jobs to protect those they would interact with and experiencing financial hardship as a result. Or, 2) Going to work because they can’t afford the lost wages, and likely passing on infections and diseases.
All families would be wise to rethink disaster preparedness kits. If you live in certain areas, you hopefully have an emergency hurricane, tornado, or earthquake kit. But many families don’t, even though they live in danger areas. Personally, I’ve discovered the items in my hurricane kit (tracking maps, battery powered radios, etc.) are sorely lacking for an epidemic or pandemic (face masks, disinfectants, etc.). You don’t have to go full prepper with a bomb shelter but ask a Mormon friend for some advice on this.
Current governments disaster preparedness is negligent. We stockpile nukes and other weapons of mass destruction. We finance studies on the rate flow of ketchup, legislate how many electrical outlets are required in people’s kitchens, and want to regulate their sex lives. How could we be so ridiculously unprepared with supplies of masks, gowns, and other gear for medical professionals and the public health? This lesson could have easily been learned with previous flu epidemics, but we chose to ignore it.
We need term limits for politicians. By the time party leaders like Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell reach their respective positions, they are so indebted to lobbyists and special interests they can no longer pursue the public good. The dysfunction and inability of the parties to come together in times of crisis demonstrates this.
Practice better personal hygiene. It took your whole life until this point, but now you know the proper way to wash your hands. Wash your hands after using the bathroom. Wash your hands before you eat. Wash your hands before you put them in the air and move them around like you just don’t care. Take your shoes off in the house. Make friends with the bidet.
Presidents must be required to divest their holdings or place them in a blind trust. Jimmy Carter sold his peanut farm. Presidents Reagan, both Bushes, and Clinton placed their holdings in a blind trust. (President Obama was not wealthy and most of his money was in U.S. Treasury bonds.) President Trump shuttles weekly to his hotels and golf resorts, has his children running them, and has brought his daughter and son-in-law into the White House to influence policy decisions. The potential conflicts of interest are staggering. As a result, we have to be concerned whether the president is making decisions based on the good of the American people – or the economic ramifications of his highly leveraged real estate projects around the world and Ivanka’s foreign trademark applications. Now President Trump is suggesting a $500 billion slush fund, under his control, for recovery efforts. His “drain the swamp” campaign is starting to look like nine wolves and a lamb voting on what to eat for dinner.
Members of the Senate and House of Representatives should also be required to divest their holdings or place them in a blind trust. Senior committee members of both parties received classified briefings in January and February on the potential impact of the coronavirus – then quietly sold stocks in airlines and cruise companies, while buying shares in biotech, vaccine manufactures, and companies like Clorox. This is unconscionable. We need safeguards to prevent any conflict of interest between what's good for the country and what's good for their retirement accounts.
It’s time to take a serious look at Universal Basic Income. Maybe it’s a great idea, maybe it’s not. But the time is overdue to have a serious conversation and study of it. The current economic system allows too many vulnerable people to fall through the cracks. There are millions of unemployed, underemployed, undocumented, homeless, and people with mental illness. These are our fellow human beings. Let’ stop treating them as though they are disposable.
Our health care system is broken. Here in the United States, the wealthiest country on earth, the health care system is a national disgrace. I don’t think the answer is socializing the whole system. Communism doesn’t work and Socialism is simply Communism with lipstick. But I don’t think the answer is unchecked free enterprise or a Libertarian approach either. Insurance and drug companies have proven that if they must choose between people dying or maximizing their profits – they choose profits. In an enlightened society, people should not have to go bankrupt if they develop a serious disease, have to make a choice between food or medicine, or die because they are poor. We're smart people, we can figure this out together.
It’s a good time to improve the judicial system. There currently is a huge amount of people incarcerated for minor offenses like marijuana possession or inability to post cash bail. Also, there are thousands of elderly inmates who were convicted of non-violent crimes. Jails and prisons offer ideal, petri dish conditions to become centers of outbreak. Commute some sentences and send other people home for house arrest with ankle bracelets. Lives will be saved, and justice will be served.
Public health officials must be insulated from politics. We need to develop some kind of buffer for positions like Director of the CDC, so they are protected from being muzzled by administrations seeking to hide or downplay information that the public needs to know.
Look after the gig economy. Millions of people are now working in the gig economy and that’s a good thing. It provides a valuable service both to workers and the companies who hire them, and it has become a vital factor in our economy. But gig workers are roadkill in a crisis like this because they don’t fit into the traditional categories for unemployment insurance, sick leave, health care, and other issues we’ve discussed.
What lessons have I missed? Please share any thoughts you have below and let's get these important conversations going.