By Hazel Henderson
Revelations on the abject failure of the USA of the Trump administration, including the verbatim tapes of Robert Woodward‘s interviews in “RAGE” (2020), show the necessity for coordinated government policy, leadership and collective action. In the global spread of Covid-19, those countries with these priorities, using widespread early testing, halted or slowed the pandemic and its toll on their populations. Such countries also had robust public health systems, social safety-nets, democratic governance, transparent communication with the public and therefore widely-trusted as committed to the public interest. In China, draconian early lockdowns also limited the spread of the pandemic, even though their delayed communication with the World Health Organization and releasing the virus’s genetic code could not prevent its escape around the world. The long-documented failure of the US for-profit healthcare model demonstrates its need to enshrine healthcare as a human right. This assurance in most developed countries is provided at half the cost of the US medical-industrial complex, as Timothy Snyder details in his “Our Malady” (2020) how institutionalized US racial and gender discrimination, also in healthcare inequality, exacerbated unfair outcomes, fueling the widespread peaceful street protests for social justice.
Among the responses in developed countries, mostly members of the OECD, two failures stand out: The USA and Britain, where individualism, faith in free markets, mixed public-private sector, limited government ideologies produced slow, laissez-faire responses to the virus. Political wrangling over clear lines of authority led to conflicting public messaging, advice on remedies and concealing of dangers. Conflicting rules in different provinces, counties and states led to public confusion and distrust, with conspiracy theories circulating, politicizing of public health mandates for quarantining victims, social distancing and masks. In the USA, rebellious gatherings and super-spreader public events, often with Trump’s encouragement and rallies, led to the largest number of deaths per capita in the world. Since my service as a science policy advisor to the US Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), I documented the perversion of US innovation toward trivialities of media-driven market consumerism, rather than needed social innovation in the public sector (Henderson, 1991, 1996). Covid-19 innovators marketed personal masks, diets, vitamins, apps and online conviviality—over-riding civic collective action.
It’s time to face reality. The pandemic will continue unchecked in the USA until people reframe their thinking, cultural norms and explore collective action rather than passively waiting for a rushed vaccine that many distrust and 30% vow they will not take. First, the USA must elect a new, competent administration in November, committed to a national program with the Defense Production Act deploying industrial sector capacity to produce more public healthcare goods and services, equitably ramping up manufacture and distribution of billions of available simple saliva tests. These cheap tests on paper strips giving instantaneous results, can be mass-produced and used like daily tooth-brushing, as described by Dr. Carolyn Barber in Scientific American, Sept. 12, 2020. This will inform policy-makers and health officials still flying blind, allowing them to track the virus, identify the asymptomatic spreaders to protect themselves and others. As pandemic polarization and fears spread, I focused on preventive testing, following pioneer medical professionals, Michael Mina, and others in non-profit Testing for America, calling for a moonshot, along with those at MIT, Yale with Rockefeller Foundation and other supporters. I also called for government procurement of simpler tests in “Let’s Restart America: Free Daily Tests For All“. Startup producers are ready, including E25Bio, Sherlock Biosciences, Ginko Bioworks, Helix, as reported in the Harvard Gazette, August 2020, and the in-depth report in Atlantic: “The Plan That Could Give Us Back Our Lives, Sept. 12, 2020.
Growing up in Britain, I witnessed its traditional caste system privileging wealthy upper classes, further advantaged in the “free” market and those workers in the middle and lower rungs and the servant classes, as seen in the BBC TV series, ”Downton Abbey” and its upstairs-downstairs portrayal. Yet even Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s “you’re on your own” focus on individual responsibility never overcame our local community solidarity, collective solutions, volunteering my mother and her friends performed with traditional caring and sharing expected by all. We were raised with these values of the Golden Rule, lived by them locally and taught them to our children. In 2020, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, perhaps distracting from the latest Brexit battle with the EU, also called for a ”moonshot” of massive production and distribution of these saliva tests. This seems viable and would allow Oxford University and AstraZeneca to pursue vaccine research and trials without undue haste and political pressure, as free tests for all become a priority. In the USA, presidential front-runner Joe Biden supports such nationwide testing. New York Times columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin agrees but asks if companies can produce enough test kits, (Sept. 8, 2020). Of course, both countries will need to mandate production with government contracts to prime the pump until markets scale up.
In the USA, the free market model of Anglo-Saxon economic textbooks flourished. This model suited the frontier prospecting of rugged individualism which conquered the North American continent and led to the genocidal subjugation of its millions of indigenous inhabitants. Waves of Europeans fleeing poverty and oppression, embraced this heady individualism and its liberating freedom, celebrated by Ayn Rand in her many books with millions of followers. These include many elected politicians and even the former chairman of the US central bank, The Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan. The guiding text was Adam Smith’s famous “Wealth of Nations“ (1776), widely adopted by Wall Street, discussed in our TV “How Adam Smith and Charles Darwin Were Hijacked“, Adam Smith’s caveats focused on ethical and community responsibility in his “Theory of Moral Sentiments (1757) are still widely ignored. Charles Darwin’s “Descent of Man“ (1871) and his theory of natural selection, was hijacked by elites in Britain and the USA, to justify their privileges, and miscast as “the survival of the fittest“, coined by Herbert Spencer, as a columnist for The Economist. The journal apologized for “this poisonous phrase” in 2006, as I documented in “Ethical Markets: Growing the Green Economy“ (2006). Darwin attributed humanity’s success as due to our genius for bonding and cooperation, as David Loye documents in “Rediscovering Darwin” (2018).
This detour into the history of hyper-individualism helps in understanding the relative responses of countries to the Covid-19 virus in 2020. The roots of this UK-USA libertarian culture and its consequences in the USA are described by Kurt Andersen in “Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire“ (2017). He describes the combination of religiosity, as well as cynicism over the hucksterism, competition and snake oil marketing, while simultaneously demeaning of authority and government’s roles. This produced a culture of individualistic sovereignty along with belief in untrammeled freedom of speech and markets, equated with democracy, even entitling everyone to their own set of facts, as well as conspiracy theories and the right to spread them on unregulated social media!
Fast forward to the pandemic of 2020. This background may help explain how this culture helped exacerbate the chaotic lack of any kind of national plan to approach the pandemic. The resulting administrative paralysis, misinforming the public led to millions of deaths and lack of global cooperation and multi-lateral responsibility that other nations still expect of the USA. This is the latest example of market failure, on a similar scale to that evidenced in the global climate crisis documented by Nicholas Stern in his “Stern Report: The Economics of Climate Change“, UK Treasury, London, (2006). Denial of the pandemic, similar to climate denial, has deeper roots in widespread science-denial, disbelief in Darwin’s natural selection, along with passionate beliefs in biblical creationism.
This US hyper-individualism led people to devise their many ingenious ways of personal protection, but largely clueless on how to organize for sound community and wider collective responses to the virus. Decades of market fundamentalism led by oligarchs and their academic apologists preaching free markets, distrust of government, abetted by compliant commercial advertising and media, left people confused, often blaming each other. Recent revelations in Woodward’s tapes now show that the public was being deceived, in the fiction that the US economy could open up, to preserve Trump’s political chances in November’s election. Those lucky enough to be able to work from home, enjoyed the respite from commuting, while the companies based on the government funded internet profited in the massive digital expansion and the country’s 1% relished the Wall Street boom. The inequality gap widened, as the other 99% lost jobs, or were forced to keep working in the underpaid, risky essential jobs, as well as in nursing homes and those providing emergency healthcare and other first responders.
Meanwhile, the catastrophic lack of attention by the White House and Trump’s Republican followers, forced the Federal Reserve into injecting trillion of new liquidity which immediately flowed in well-worn channels to create asset bubbles, even though it was expected to boost aggregate demand by flowing downward to support lost incomes and businesses on Main Street. The Congress jumped in with $3 trillion of additional fiscal stimulus, much of which did trickle down to those in the real economy. However, it is clear that our US economy must be re-structured and the textbooks have not caught up with the reality that its market economy’s basic plumbing is broken. Another round of stimulus is clearly needed in the interim, but unlikely before November’s election. Thus, millions are still left with dwindling finances and no further income support, as provided in Britain and so many European countries. In the USA, states facing tax losses and budget shortfalls from the shutdown, were forced to compete with each other, bidding up prices for essential medical equipment. Millions face the end of unemployment checks, more job losses, eviction notices and even hunger, while food markets failed, with vegetables rotting in fields as people queued up at voluntary food banks…. shocking scenes indicating such a rich country.
Confused people in the USA still blame ”the government“ writ large. Missing are critical analyses identifying the failure of the Trump administration versus the heroic actions of most state-level governors, mayors of most cities, as well as voluntary charities. The Atlantic article “America is Trapped in a Pandemic Spiral“ by Ed Yong (September 10, 2020), sums up the tragedy of trying to cope with a global pandemic with this cultural norm producing all these uncoordinated individual actions. This chaos may continue until there is a recognition of the market failures that have occurred in climate change, now evidenced in all the fires on the West coast, floods, super-storms and rising sea levels, as well as in the pandemic, which will be around for years. This requires re-thinking long-held beliefs and customs and shifting beyond the dominant ideology of progress and economic growth measured only in GDP money terms. It’s past time to move “Beyond GDP” and steer our societies toward the Golden Rule, now encoded in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The big lesson for the USA and Britain is that free-market individualism cannot stop a pandemic. Governments with competence, scientific knowledge and transparency are now essential.
Hazel Henderson is a global futurist, author of the ”The Politics of the Solar Age” (1981, 1988), CEO of Ethical Markets Media Certified B. Corporation www.ethicalmarkets.com, publishers of the Green Transition Scoreboard® and producers of the globally distributed TV series “Transforming Finance“. She has served on cabinet-level scientific advisory boards in the USA and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts (UK), the Club of Rome and the World Academy of Art & Science.