How to build American resilience
For Americans and much of the world, 2020 has been an annus horribilis. To contain the coronavirus pandemic, nations have been forced to order mass quarantines, freezing economic activity and social life. It likely will take decades to calculate the full human, economic and psychic costs of this still-unfolding global calamity.
Few countries have been spared the ravages of COVID-19, but no country has been hit harder than the United States. A quarter of the 20 million people the virus has infected globally are American, and at 165,000, our death toll is by far the world’s largest.
The plague has put the world’s biggest economy on life support. After shrinking by 5 percent in the first quarter of 2020, U.S. output plunged by nearly 10 percent in the second quarter. Since March, more than 42 million Americans have filed for unemployment, and as many as one in six (about 25 million) remain out of full-time work.
Amid this unprecedented public health and economic crisis an old American dilemma
– racial injustice – has reared its head. The senseless killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black Americans by police has triggered widespread public outrage and sometimes violent protests.
Intensifying all three of these shocks is a catastrophic failure of national leadership. In America’s past tribulations, extraordinary leaders have arisen to steer our republic through the storm. Not this time. President Trump has run the ship of state aground.
His incompetent handling of COVID-19 has prolonged the pandemic and pushed our economy to the brink of collapse. As demonstrations against police brutality and racial discrimination tear at the nation’s social fabric, Trump has displayed a perverse talent for inciting social rancor and pitting Americans against each other.
Now, with a crucial national election approaching this fall, Trump is trying to deny Americans the right to vote safely at home. He’s falsely crying fraud to undermine public confidence in the legitimacy of our electoral system.
No wonder Americans’ nerves are frayed. The impression grows, here and abroad, that our country is becoming a failed state.
But that’s wrong. The United States remains a resourceful and dynamic country capable of swift course corrections. Time and again, we’ve showed that a free people can bounce back from adversity stronger than before. Now it’s time to reinvent ourselves again.
Since March, Americans have made enormous sacrifices to save lives and keep our health system and economy from collapsing. Many have stood by helplessly as friends and relatives have died lonely deaths in isolation. The psychological toll has been heavy: Research by the Society of Human Resource Managers finds that one in four workers report feeling either hopeless or depressed.
The fight against COVID-19 has not been borne equally. Health care and emergency workers and those in “essential” industries (such as meatpacking and grocery stores) have been exposed to higher risks of falling ill. The chief victims of COVID-19, by far, are the elderly. Thus far, 43 percent of deaths have been linked to nursing homes.
The pandemic also has taken a severe toll on low-income and minority communities, where many suffer from health problems associated with poverty and discrimination. African-Americans are dying from COVID-19 at a rate nearly twice as high as their share of the population. Blacks (13 percent of the U.S. population) account for 24 percent of all deaths.
If U.S. leaders don’t emerge from this painful period resolved to build a more just and resilient society, all this suffering and sacrifice will have been in vain. In “Building American Resilience,” the Progressive Policy Institute presents 14 bold and original proposals for strengthening our county’s ability to react quickly to unexpected events.
For example, when COVID-19 struck, the nation’s shrunken manufacturing base was unable to produce enough high-quality masks and other protective equipment, tests and ventilators to check the pandemic. Our blueprint proposes a “National Resilience Council” to harness America’s strength in digital technology to stimulate more local production, shorten supply chains and create high-wage factory jobs. Rather than depend on China’s giant, state-subsidized factories, a resilient U.S. manufacturing sector requires small and efficient factories that are spread around the country, using new technology, knitted together by manufacturing platforms that digitally route orders to the nearest or best supplier.
We also need a “National Reemployment Initiative” aimed at getting Americans back to work as soon as conditions allow — and to make work pay. It should aim at creating two million new businesses to replace those that have shuttered permanently during the pandemic, expanding job-based apprenticeships ten-fold and equalizing national investment in the skills and career prospects of non-college as well as college-bound youth.
Our economy’s seeming inability to generate decent wages for non-college workers – along with unfounded fears that robots are making many workers superfluous – has triggered calls on the left for guaranteed government jobs or income. Instead, PPI proposes a new “Living Wage Credit” that supplements market wages to ensure that all full-time workers earn enough to keep their families in the middle class.
The pandemic also has illuminated a fundamental lack of resilience in America’s
health care system. For instance, more than five million Americans have lost their health coverage because it was tied to jobs they lost in the shutdown. In most states, many are able to turn to Medicaid for coverage, but 12 states controlled by Republicans still have refused to expand their Medicaid programs under the Affordable Care Act.
More broadly, our plan calls for fundamentally changing the way we deliver and pay for health care. The key challenge: Driving down the exorbitant cost of medical treatment, which drives up insurance costs, lowers wages and sucks up resources we need for social investments that promote public health.
We propose a new approach to regulated competition that caps medical prices and uses global budgets to create incentives for improving health on the front end to reduce the need for heroic interventions on the back end. These steps will generate large societal savings that we can invest in improving the “social determinants” of a healthier society — especially better housing, schools, nutrition, public safety and opportunities for our most vulnerable citizens.
“Building American Resilience” also offers innovative ideas for combatting hunger and modernizing the social safety net; creating good jobs and protecting the climate by making the United States number one in electric vehicle production; boosting economic security for gig workers; democratizing capital ownership to reduce racial and ethnic wealth gaps; making college more affordable and our K-12 schools more flexible; managing the business cycle to support fiscally responsible growth; and more.
Having absorbed mighty blows over the past two decades from terrorism, a deep recession and housing crisis, and today’s pandemic, Americans have learned the hard way that our country needs stronger economic and social shock absorbers. Our challenge isn’t just to recover from the present crisis, but to build a better, more equitable democracy that will be more resilient against future shocks no one can foresee.
Will Marshall is president and founder of the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI).
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