In addition to all the possible institutional changes that the pandemic might bring, I have also been wondering whether the pandemic crisis will alter collective attitudes. For example, we are learning how dependent we are on those who fill what are now called “essential” jobs, work that often pays little above the poverty level. Will these workers gain more lasting respect from the rest of us? Many of these essential workers—not just the clerks and delivery people or those who work in food processing plants and agricultural fields, but also doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals—are immigrants. Will this change attitudes about immigration and immigration reform?
With schools closed and children at home consigned to online learning and home schooling, will we appreciate teachers more?
On the other hand, will mass unemployment and concerns about a recovery make us think that we have overvalued education? More education will not aid a swift recovery or get the unemployed quickly back to work. For decades America has had faith in the educational system to create opportunities. Even in non-crisis times, this has not produced schools and colleges that work for everyone, and it takes years for the opportunities to emerge even for those for whom the educational system works. Economic recovery needs a faster timeline. Nicholas Lemann in The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy maintains that America did well when it committed massive central-government resources to large enterprises such as the Panama Canal, the space program, highways, other transportation initiatives, and water projects. But this kind of spending is out of fashion and has been opposed by many. Will we see a change in that entrenched attitude?
On that front, it is striking that Congress quickly and overwhelmingly passed and the president signed not one but two recovery bills. Republicans and Democrats may continue to dicker over further recovery legislation, but all agree that the federal government needs to aid in a recovery and perhaps in stimulating the economy. This is a major change from the financial meltdown of a dozen years ago. Only a minority of Republicans voted for bailouts of financial institutions even though Republican George W. Bush was President and proposed them. A few years later with the country in a deep recession, not one Republican voted for the stimulus package of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, even though it was festooned with tax cuts. Of course, Barack Obama was then President, and partisanship was more important than country for many Republicans. As Adam Tooze in Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World reports, because Obama needed all the Democrats for passage, the stimulus got whittled down to satisfy conservative Democrats, and it was less than the U.S. economy needed.
The coronavirus pandemic has produced a different reaction–overwhelming support for federal recovery actions now. Because these initial steps are unlikely to be sufficient, will Republicans continue to support federal efforts, or will they revert to opposing governing?
Adam Tooze maintains that while it was not sufficiently large, that Obama stimulus still had a substantial positive effect on the economy, but Tooze also notes that it did not have the good public relations of the New Deal programs. Consequently, Obama did not build Democrats-for-life that the New Deal did. Will the pandemic bring what the Great Recession did not—new members-for-life for one of the parties?
At least right now, we do seem to have a changed attitude about the government’s role in ameliorating the economic effects of the pandemic, but might other attitudes about governing also alter? In some circles, the government has been uniformly bashed in the last decades, but the pandemic demonstrates that we need strong government, at least in some areas, staffed with knowledgeable, effective people upon whom we can rely. Will we remember that lesson?
The pandemic shows that free market forces alone should not be relied upon for the manufacture and distribution of essential drugs, medical devices, and protective equipment. Will attitudes about the balance between government and the free market shift?
Since World War II, health insurance for most Americans has been tied to employment, but when there is massive unemployment, this link becomes broken. Will we rethink this aspect of health insurance?
Will our attitudes change about those who do not have jobs and how to aid them?
Will our attitudes shift about retail shopping, and if so, what might that mean for the economy?
Will our attitudes shift about the methods we use to vote?
We are hoping and waiting for a vaccine. If it comes, will it change attitudes within and about the anti-vaccine crowd? Will it change attitudes about preventive healthcare in general?
But one thing is not being changed. Different segments of the country still latch onto different sets of “facts” and accept conspiracies that suit their preconceptions. Michiko Kakutani states that in the nineteenth century P.T. Barnum learned that not only was it easy to deceive the American public, but the public enjoyed being deceived as long as it was being entertained. Many have now learned that it is easy to deceive many people as long as the deceptions rile them up. That does not seem to be changing.
But I will make one prediction about the pandemic of which I am reasonably confident: Fewer of us will take toilet paper for granted.