The social and political response to major catastrophes often proceeds in stages. Stage 1 is denial. Thankfully, this stage is largely over for the coronavirus crisis. Not counting a few poltroons and conspiracy theorists, nobody is saying it’s all hype or no big deal.
Now we’re transitioning, in fits and starts, from Stage 2 to Stage 3.
Politicians and policymakers are taking the threat seriously, but lacking contingency plans and the mental bandwidth to deal with all of the challenges that are arising, they’ve been falling back on what they already believe to be true. Stage 2 is the “COVID-19 confirms my priors” period.
For many Democrats, the roaring economy of eight weeks ago was the perfect time to push for canceling student debt, establishing a $15-per-hour minimum wage, implementing “Medicare for All,” etc. A runaway pandemic and the start of a massive shutdown of the economy only made it more obvious that these “priors” were absolutely necessary.
For many Republicans, the booming economy was the perfect time to push for tax cuts, immigration restrictions (including a border wall), a new cold war orientation toward China and a declaration of war on the media for being mean to the president. And lo and behold, as the coronavirus crisis shaped up, they too believed their ideas were all the more justified.
Just because these policies are priors doesn’t mean they are necessarily ill-suited to the moment. For instance, canceling some student debt makes more sense now than before, and a major rethinking of our economic entanglement with China seems acutely overdue. But this has more to do with serendipity than critical thinking.
This isn’t to say that both sides don’t try their best to deal with emergencies. But just as the stockpile of masks and ventilators is not adequate for the sudden demand, the same holds for the storehouse of policies we could put into effect right now. Or, to be more fair to the wonks who warned about some of these problems, there’s a lag time in getting new and better policies into production.
What Stage 3 of the coronavirus crisis will look like remains murky. Andrew Yang’s quest for universal cash payments to Americans seemed quixotic just weeks ago. Now it looks like the bedrock of a new policy agenda. The traditional Republican resistance to interference in corporate decision-making is being worn away by the hour, and once swept aside it seems unlikely to return in nearly as robust form. A new consensus may be quickly forming that government should have a much bigger say in how supply chains are structured, regardless of the corporate bottom line. It’s almost certain that the U.S. pharmaceutical industry’s dependence on China for basic medicinal ingredients will not survive this pandemic.
Other responses are still in the early stages, and big questions will need to be addressed, from how we should deploy the Defense Production Act to how to reconcile our federalist structure with public health crises.
Perhaps oddly, I find myself wondering — and worrying — about Stage 4. How will things look when this is all over? What will be the new normal? Will the handshake ever return? What emergency measures now will be our everyday reality years from now?
Jonah Goldberg is an editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. You can write to him in care of this newspaper or by email at JonahsColumn@aol.com.
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