Why the Pandemic Still Matters

Systemic Stress

Thanks to a rising wave of infections in the United States, the pandemic is back in the news. Step aside, social unrest and police brutality: The virus is on the move.

Of course, the pandemic never actually went away. In our saturated media environment, collective attention simply turned elsewhere for a few weeks, focusing instead on the largest wave of mass unrest and some (possibly?) transformative shifts in America’s fraught relationship with race. But thanks to the combination of the staggeringly incompetent public policy response, the baseline cultural pathologies of American life, and some individual acts of idiocy, the coronavirus is here to stay.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that wide swathes of the United States have essentially given up on trying to contain the spread. Those that haven’t given up altogether have more or less come to terms with mass infection and several thousand deaths every week. America is Coronavirus Territory now. We’re going to be reckoning with the consequences - and not just the avoidable human cost - for a long time.

So let’s try to grapple with some of those short-, medium-, and long-term consequences.

1) Regional and local disparities.

One of the hardest things to explain about the United States to non-Americans, and even to grasp as an American, is the country’s sheer staggering diversity. It’s almost impossible to wrap our minds around just how big it is, how striking the differences are between effectively third-world conditions in some places and gleaming utopias (or dystopias, depending on your point of view) in others. California isn’t New York, Florida isn’t Arizona, and the Dakotas aren’t Mississippi. Political cultures, settlement patterns, economies, ethnic and racial makeup, and state structures all vary enormously from state to state and region to region even within states.

Multiple axes of differentiation separate even places that look superficially similar. I grew up in Yakima County in central Washington state, which is dry, agricultural, heavily Latino, and adjacent to a large Indian reservation. The part of New Mexico where my in-laws reside is also dry, agricultural, heavily Latino, and adjacent to large Indian reservations, but its political culture, voting patterns, institutions, cuisine, and especially its history all make it a much different place. Other countries have their own internal variations, of course: Nobody’s going to confuse Sydney for the Australian Outback, Xinjiang for Shanghai, or Chechnya for Moscow.

What separates the US from other nation-states is its lack of uniform national practices and institutions. The federal government, while more powerful than its detractors might prefer, exerts far less material influence over the day-to-day lives of its citizens than is the case in comparable states. What we would call state capacity at the federal level, especially after decades of ideologically driven gutting, isn’t especially high. Idiosyncrasies and redundancies abound in the American system. States, counties, and municipalities handle most of the actual work of governance, and their relationship to putatively higher levels of authority is subject to constant infighting and tension carried out through the judicial system.

This lack of centralization and uniformity isn’t an accident; it’s baked into the American political system, creating a ramshackle series of overlapping layers of authority and governance that constantly grate against one another. At best, that tension is the cost of doing business, and the redundant setup provides resilience in the face of higher-level political failures; at worst, it further widens the political, racial, and cultural cracks that divide Americans from one another, making a coordinated response to a general problem impossible.

So we’re starting with the baseline regional and local diversity of the United States and its wide variations in wealth, poverty, health, and government capacity. To that we add the rickety political structures and confusion over who has the power to do what in precisely which place. Finally, inject the pandemic into the mix. A disastrous response is, if not quite foreordained, more likely than not even with competent leadership. Even highly centralized, well-organized, and well-led nations have faced serious difficulties in coordinating a vigorous, multifaceted response to the coronavirus. The US doesn’t fit any of those descriptions.

The upshot is that the US isn’t facing a single outbreak; instead, it’s facing many local or regional pockets of infection. Even if this country had the state capacity for a one-size-fits-all response to the public health aspects of the coronavirus crisis, which it probably doesn’t, the vast differences in population health, lifeways, and local government capacity effectively ensure that the pandemic won’t go away. Containing the horrific outbreak in New York and New Jersey simply means giving way to new hot spots in Arizona, Texas, and Florida. In areas full of impoverished workers - often disproportionately minorities who are more likely to have many risk factors, work in tight quarters, and live in multigenerational households - the coronavirus might simply stick around until or even after a vaccine is available. The US is full of places like that: I grew up in one of them. Yakima County is currently experiencing one of the worst outbreaks in the country.

As long as these hot spots exist and travel continues within the US, the pandemic will remain a national problem. Americans are connected enough to form regional and national networks of movement, giving the coronavirus the means of circulating throughout the country, but not unified enough to have a coordinated national response that actually succeeds in mitigating its spread.

2) The economy.

For the moment, the economy is nowhere near as bad as it could be. We’ve rebounded from the initial shock of the coronavirus, which put millions upon millions of people out of work temporarily or permanently. A reasonably effective stimulus package has prevented an immediate and cataclysmic drop into mass poverty and an exceptionally robust response from the Federal Reserve has shored up the financial markets. So far, so good, right?

The stimulus package, the major factor preventing economic hardship on an inconceivable scale, runs out at the end of July. Giving money to people who need it is such an effective anti-poverty strategy, and such a reliable means of boosting the overall economy in hard times, because poorer people spend their money on things they need. They have to buy food and other necessities, so the dollars they receive through a stimulus package immediately circulate throughout the economy as a whole. This simple fact is what’s propping up huge segments of the country for the moment. If that money runs out - if Congress can’t put together a reasonable replacement in time - then we’ve simply put off the crash rather than avoiding it altogether.

The reason we can’t simply wait it out is because consumer behavior and spending patterns have changed quite dramatically. It wasn’t the stay-at-home orders that stopped people from going to restaurants or traveling; it was the coronavirus. As long as the virus sticks around, folks aren’t going to get back to leisure or business travel, regularly eating out at restaurants, packing into bars and nightclubs, and standing shoulder-to-shoulder in gyms. This is all basically discretionary spending from the segments of consumers with money to burn, and they’re not spending it in anywhere close to the same amounts as they were in February. If they’re not spending it, the people who provide those services aren’t working, and in the aggregate, that’s a lot of workers employed by a lot of businesses. The stimulus package and its small-business loans delayed the wave of business failures, but it’s a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound, not a solution to a structural problem.

Take airline travel as an example. It’s slowly ticking back up, reaching a high of 607,540 total traveler throughputs (per TSA) on June 22nd. But that’s still just 22.3 percent of last year’s total on that date, and while the monthly rise is encouraging (12.4 percent of last year’s total on May 22nd and just 4.4 percent on April 22nd), we’re looking at a long, hard period before things are anywhere close to normalcy. It’s not just the airlines and their employees, either; we’re talking about baggage handlers, wait-staff at airport restaurants, janitors, and so on. More than 10 million people work in the airline industry, and that’s not counting the many millions more in the hospitality industry more broadly.

Travel is just one segment of the economy. Grocery stores are doing great, and it’s a good time to be in the home fitness business, but far more industries are hurting. Anything built on the provision of in-person services is in deep, structural trouble for the foreseeable future, especially once the pent-up demand after months of lockdown burns itself out. Everybody needed a haircut, but now that they’ve gotten one, are they going to return to their regular schedule or be a bit more circumspect about it? If you immediately rushed to your favorite bar for a perhaps ill-advised but deeply desired ice-cold beer, are you going to do that as often now as you did before?

The answer to that is extremely likely to be “no.” Enough people will change their behavior that demand in those formerly booming sectors is likely to settle in at a noticeably lower level.

You might say that those consumers will simply spend that money on other things. It will be a painful transition for the people providing those services, but laid-off barbers can find work in grocery stores and restaurant servers can get a job making kettlebells or Pelotons. There are significant costs associated with that transition - they’re called allocation costs - but once the outlines of the new patterns of demand are clear, folks will make the necessary adjustments.

But if you’ve bought all the home fitness equipment you need, if you’re bought an air fryer and a PlayStation and you’re paying for three new streaming services and a virtual fitness subscription, how much else do you really need?

The basic, structural problem is that large segments of the service economy depend on the discretionary spending of affluent people. Those people are disproportionately likely to be making the adjustment to working from home and to have the resources to outfit that home with some or all of the conveniences they used to enjoy in somebody’s place of business. Instead of providing service workers with a steady stream of regular payments, they’re making one-off purchases: more groceries instead of eating lunch out of the office three times a week, buying a massage gun instead of getting regular massages, buying a treadmill instead of paying for a personal trainer.

In sum, there’s no reason to think that aggregate spending will settle in back at those pre-pandemic levels. It’s not a simple matter of moving people from hard-hit industries to ones better suited to this state of affairs, as costly as that process might be. If spending is down, and less money is changing hands, then there are fewer jobs. Unemployment or at best under-employment will remain at an elevated level. That sounds a lot like a genuine recession even if Congress can do its job and address the need for ongoing stimulus. If it can’t, and there’s no more stimulus, then we’re looking at a full-on depression.

3) Political legitimacy.

This last point grows out of the first two. I discussed our ongoing crisis of political legitimacy in my last post, but the pandemic isn’t separable from it; instead, they’re intimately connected.

At the most basic level, a political system’s legitimacy builds from its ability to deliver the goods and services it promises to its constituents. Roads, bridges, education, a feeling of national relevance on the geopolitical stage, material benefits to an elite: these are the kinds of bargains political systems strike in return for support.

In our current system, public health would seem to fall under the heading of things we expect government to handle. Multiple levels of American government have failed to contain the pandemic or develop viable plans for reopening beyond accepting mass sickness and death while hoping for the best. That isn’t a stirring argument in favor of full-throated support of the status quo, particularly when combined with the ongoing powder keg of issues surrounding police brutality and the underlying precariousness of large segments of the population. If there’s no new stimulus bill, another wave of repressive state violence in the face of ongoing protests, a targeted mass shooting, or some other unforeseen issue, that powder keg becomes a time bomb.

The basic problem is that this situation demands active, ongoing, forward-thinking management from our political leaders and political class more broadly. Think of the pandemic as a stress test of our entire political system: of its ability to grasp the outlines of a problem (or rather, a series of interrelated problems) and then come to a consensus about the necessary solution(s) to that problem. This is actually difficult, a serious challenge even to stable and organized systems. The US has done better than some countries - yikes, Brazil - and some places have done better than others, but multiple levels of our state apparatus have manifestly failed, in many different places and in many different ways. Failure of this kind, especially when lives and the material well-being of the populace is at stake, is a genuine threat to the stability and legitimacy of a political order. If you can’t handle a pandemic, why should we pay taxes, obey officials, or generally do as we’re told? That’s a legitimacy crisis.

Beyond, illness and death, this is the insidious threat of the virus: It places huge amounts of unpredictable strain on various aspects of our political, economic, and social system. It demands responses from people who may not have the ability to grasp the problems or the capacity to respond to them. It worms its way into the regional and local cracks in our society, the vast disparities in wealth and well-being that prevail from place to place. Now that the coronavirus is here to stay, all we can do is hope that those systems - and our people - don’t break under the pressure.

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