Time walks but change leaps. The current pandemic is not changing anything as much as it’s accelerating changes that were already in motion.
Consider the primary engine of our capitalist society: our buying stuff. In 2010 we purchased 5% of our consumer goods online. Ten years later, just before the first big shut down, we were buying just 16% of consumer goods online. Then, in only two months, that figure leapt to 27%. By October, despite stores having been reopened since the summer, 70% of Canadians reported that they would be buying Christmas gifts online. When stores reopen after the final wave’s lockdown they had better have shifted to online sales because the slow creep toward shopping through our laptops rather than their front doors will have leapt forward to such a degree that it will not slip completely back.
Companies that enjoyed a decade of change in just a few weeks had been around for a long while and growing slowly. Apple, for instance, had taken over 40 years to reach a valuation of one billion dollars. When the world locked up in March, Apple leapt to 2 billion in the next five months.
Meanwhile, as American federal reserve chair Alan Greenspan once famously observed, “You can only see who has been swimming naked when the tide goes out.” Lots of companies had been bare and barely hanging on with massive debt and failing business models. The virus accelerated their demise. Companies that have declared bankruptcy since the pandemic arrived include J. Crew, JC Penney, Cirque du Soleil, Brooks Brothers, Hertz, Gold’s Gym, Briggs & Stratton, Reitmans, and that company that stole an afternoon of my life that I will never get back – Chuck E. Cheese. The world’s oldest multinational corporation, the Hudson’s Bay Company, is teetering. They all could have survived longer, dog paddling away in their birthday suits, but the pandemic accelerated their drowning.
The most consequential change that COVID accelerated has been our conception of the role of government. The one-two punch of the Depression and Second World War fundamentally altered how we perceived government’s role. The twin crises led the overwhelming majority of us to support the idea that government’s job was to balance the playing field to give us all a shot at fulfilling our potential. Its new mandate included keeping us all healthy, helping us when we became college and university students, new parents, unemployed, sick, or old. We believed we were all of the same community and that paying taxes was our shared responsibility.
By the late 1970s, the Vietnam War, OPEC Oil crisis, and runaway inflation seemed to show that government was unable to fix all problems and was causing others. That notion, coupled with the fading memory of the Depression and WWII, led to a new concept of government. In 1981, president Ronald Reagan famously said, “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” Britain’s Thatcher and Canada’s Mulroney rode the wave of anti-government sentiment. A generation saw governments’ reach shrink, publicly-owned assets sold, and programs dismantled. Taxes, we were now told, were not a way to take collective action and the price for living in a civilized society but robbery. They were cut because individual action was touted as more efficient that collective action and because less government revenue would “starve the beast” and force a further retrenchment of its power.
But then the pandemic happened. All governments made mistakes as they learned more about the virus but all at least tried to do something. The shameful incompetence of the American government demonstrated the valiant, science-based efforts of others and the need for calm, experienced, honest and able leadership.
Political leaders who maintained self-serving partisanship were laughed at, scorned, and when the people had a chance – most notably in the United States – sent packing. Politicians who insisted on continuing to divide us through dangerous rhetoric appealing to the basest among us were rejected such as Mr. Sloan who was thrown from the Conservative Party and Alberta’s Mr. Kenney who has seen support plummet.
September 11 and the 2008 Great Recession had been slowly swinging the pendulum back toward a belief in the positive power of government. The pandemic has accelerated that change so that we find ourselves today where we may have been a decade from now. Pity the politician who now fails to see that there is a new appetite for tackling big problems through bold government action. We all saw the world quickly clean itself from the skies of Mumbai to the canals of Venice and we are now ready to tackle the existential crisis of our generation and fight climate change. We are also now ready to fight the long festering embarrassments of income inequality and racial injustice. We are ready to debate, compromise, and move in collective action with our votes and tax dollars.
The pandemic has put us into an age akin to the post-Depression, post-WWII era when we fought and survived together and due to the fight became steeled to fight together some more for what was right. Faith in government always swings to and fro and the change back toward a faith in government was coming. It’s now here. Let’s see if, together, we can do some good.
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