Beyond the Pandemic: An “Inflection Point”?

Even before the election of Donald Trump and the Covid-19 pandemic, America was a deeply divided, deeply troubled country, though it didn’t have to be this way.  It was the predictable (and predicted) outcome of economic and political choices that have been made in this country over many decades – a very long, sad story.

At the beginning of this year, sky-high stock market values, rising executive compensation, and low unemployment levels masked a much darker reality for many Americans.   We have the highest level of income inequality in the industrialized world (the G-20 nations), along with the highest level of poverty (far more than the “official” 38 million in 2018) and a minimum wage that is a sick joke, as well as the poorest overall population health (as measured especially by obesity, diabetes, infant and maternal mortality, and life expectancy), by far the highest murder and incarceration rates, the lowest social mobility, the highest burden of college student debt, the highest rate of opioid addiction and deaths – oh, and a crumbling infrastructure with more than $2 trillion in urgently needed repairs.  And this was before the pandemic.  

The stark difference between this country and other advanced nations was highlighted recently by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who compared a McDonald’s burger flipper in Denmark to one in the U.S. He/she makes the equivalent of $22 per hour (more than twice as much as our workers), with six weeks of paid vacation, up to one-year of maternity/paternity leave, paid life insurance, a pension plan, and full access to Denmark’s free health insurance, paid sick leave, and subsidized child care.  American workers get none of these things.  Kristof estimates that this adds only 27 cents to the price of Big Mac.  And higher taxes for everyone, of course, but look at the benefits.

No wonder Denmark is rated at the top of the international ranking of “happiest” nations.  Although it’s regularly smeared by conservative politicians in this country as an oppressive “socialist” prison, in fact it’s a dynamic capitalist democracy with a commitment to the common good and a strong social welfare system.  Its citizens enjoy a freedom from economic want and anxiety that is enviable.  

Meanwhile, the Trump administration and the conservatives around him are still trying to scuttle the Affordable Care Act, reduce the Food Stamp (SNAP) program, curtail unemployment benefits, relax consumer and worker protections, reverse environmental regulations, cut Social Security,  and more.  And at the bottom of all this is a radically anti-democratic, anti-government, free market capitalist ideology – a kind of modern-day Social Darwinism that is encouraged (and rationalized) by the writings of the elitist right wing novelist Ayn Rand, which is required reading these days for the rich and powerful.  Rand divided the world into the deserving few “makers” and the great mass of undeserving “takers”, “moochers”, “spongers”, etc.  

In other words, we are not all in this together, with a shared common good.  It’s all about “us” versus “them”.  (Them also has a racist bias, of course.)  This is why Donald Trump and some Republican governors have had no problem with sending sick workers back into meat packing plants, or suppressing CDC guidelines for how to cope with the coronavirus, or hiding data about the incidence of deaths in nursing homes and prisons, much less doing anything about these problems.   

Abraham Lincoln memorably warned us that a house divided against itself cannot stand.  There must be a basic consensus about who “we” are and the duties and obligations that we have toward one another.  Such a consensus no longer exists in this country, and it is a very dangerous situation.  This must change.  

Every complex society like ours is, in effect, a social contract for the purpose of securing our basic biological needs – a “collective survival enterprise.”   (There are some fourteen distinct categories, or domains, of basic needs in all.)  These needs are absolute requisites for the survival and reproduction of each individual, and of society as a whole over time.   Furthermore, we are all dependent upon an enormously complex division of labor (or, better said, a combination of labor) to satisfy these needs.  And when any society fails to provide for the basic needs of its citizens, then the social contract is imperiled.  Only coercion, and repression (and/or inertia) may be able to hold it together.  Or not.  Desperate people are likely to do desperate things.  

Moreover, everyone who benefits from our society also has a reciprocal obligation to help support it, insofar as they can.   Reciprocity represents the ethical core of any organized society.  This includes both the “makers” and the “takers”  in Ayn Rand’s egregious terminology.  Our billionaires must also fully reciprocate for the benefits they receive from society.  Otherwise they are, in effect, free riders on the rest of us; they are “takers”.  

As we emerge from the coronavirus pandemic, therefore, we must reach beyond economic “recovery”.  We need to bend the curve of economic and political dysfunction in this country and make a major course change.  Call it an “inflection point.” 

For starters, we must create a new political consensus around a set of shared values, with a social contract that aims to achieve fairness and a fair society.   There are, in fact, three distinct, biologically grounded social justice principles that play a vitally important role in all of our social relationships.  They represent the goal posts, so to speak, for achieving a legitimate and fair society.   These principles are (1) equality with respect to providing for our basic survival needs; (2) equity with respect to merit (or “giving every man his due”); and (3) reciprocity, or paying back for the benefits we receive from others, and society.   These three fairness principles – equality, equity and reciprocity – must be bundled together and balanced in order to achieve a stable and relatively harmonious social order.  It could be likened to a three-legged-stool.  All three legs are equally essential.  (This ethical framework is discussed in detail in my 2011 book, The Fair Society: The Science of Human Nature and the Pursuit of Social Justice.)

One implication of this ethical framework, among others, is that a basic needs guarantee must become a moral imperative for our society going forward.   It would formalize and make explicit our fundamental purpose as a collective survival enterprise and our mutual obligations to one another.  Equally important, it is an absolute prerequisite for achieving the level of social trust, harmony, and legitimacy that will be required to heal our deep social and political divisions and respond effectively to our growing environmental crisis.  I write about all this at length in my forthcoming new book, Superorganism: Pandemics, Climate Change, and the Case for Global Governance.

The practical, political implications of this new social contract are not so very different from the many progressive proposals that have been discussed during the Presidential primary season, or that we can already see in Scandinavian countries like Denmark, Norway, and Finland – including full employment at decent wages, a full array of supportive social welfare benefits and services, extensive investment in infrastructure, excellent free education and health care, a generous retirement system, high social trust, a strong commitment to democracy, and a government that is sensitive to the common good.  In addition, we must come to grips with the existential threat of climate change and make a huge investment in converting to renewable, non-polluting energy sources, among other challenges.    

What are the odds of achieving such an inflection point in our trajectory as a society?  What are the chances of a new social contract that creates a unifying sense of a shared responsibility for one another?    This is obviously a very tall order.  The skeptics will respond that it’s much too tall.  Totally unrealistic.  Even utopian.  However, we confront an inescapable collective choice with far reaching consequences.  We have an unavoidable choice to make. 

The prominent twentieth century political economist Karl Polanyi long ago warned us, in his classic study The Great Transition, that extremes of wealth and poverty combined with widespread economic insecurity is a powder keg for violent conflicts, both within and between nations.  The common denominator in all the great revolutions of modern times has been “bread” – or the lack of it.  And now we also face the existential threat of climate change.   If the current trends continue, the coming crisis will very likely unravel and shred our fragile democracy, and possibly much worse.  To borrow a famous line from the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, “this is not a drill.” 



Peter Corning

Peter Corning is currently the Director of the Institute for the Study of Complex Systems in Seattle, Washington.  He was also a one-time science writer at Newsweek and a professor for many years in the Human Biology Program at Stanford University, along with holding a research appointment in Stanford’s Behavior Genetics Laboratory.  


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