Our pandemic has revealed the desire of nearly all of us for a shared sense of mission, a better version of ourselves. Put another way, it has accelerated a reckoning with our broken systems that has been on its way for a long time.
In the United States we are used to politicians boasting that America is "the greatest". According to the Institute for Health Metrics & Evaluation, since 1990 the United States has fallen from sixth in the world in math and science education to number 27. In 2019 infant mortality was 5.7 deaths per 1000 live births in America—significantly worse than Malta, Croatia, Latvia and almost double every member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development. Median wealth per adult in the United States is $65,904, according to Credit Suisse. That puts the country 22nd in the world behind Taiwan, Austria, Spain, Belgium and Iceland.
Coronavirus has revealed that we are more vulnerable than we knew. Even in a national emergency the America we believed in has not been delivering.
In 1941, another time of national crisis, Franklin Delano Roosevelt laid out what he named The Four Freedoms: Freedom from want, of speech, from fear, of worship. These values shaped policy for post-war America. Even in a mood of gathering catastrophe it was still possible to be farsighted in designing a system that prized stability and widespread well-being.
We can do the same. There is a terrible clarity associated with the pandemic that we should hold on to once the crisis has subsided.
Last summer, when the way we live now was barely imaginable, the CEO Roundtable—an establishment organization if ever there was one—questioned out loud the gospel of shareholder value. The CEOs offered no details on how this was to be accomplished. It was nevertheless an earthshaking questioning of a theology that has held sway for more than 40 years.
What is pernicious about the theology of shareholder value is that it makes us care principally about our own success. We are relieved of shared obligations because, according to the dogma, the market will take care of those. That renders social interactions among people—employees, customers, voters—transactional. It might be inevitable that politics has become a collection of appeals to personal interests.
Markets are geared to individual return. Public policy is—or should be—about collective return. Policy reveals what we value. What we value can rejuvenate capitalism.
Values hard coded in policy
Durable social and economic reforms don't happen magically because of market efficiency. The Thames Embankment, a wonder of urban planning, was built in the mid-19th Century with public and private money to address London's persistent cholera epidemics. The GI Bill of 1944 was created to give returning soldiers a jumpstart in life—overriding market forces. Those policies came out of catastrophe and created conditions for a better capitalism.
Here are four ideas for a new set of values to shape policy in our post-pandemic world.
The value of a living wage. When a household earns a living wage it has margin. If we say we care about stable families we must care about that.
In the current crisis Spain, the Netherlands and Germany prioritize sustained employment over layoffs and furloughs as crucial to a quick rebound. In the United States we say all the right things about the people we need to keep showing up for work—not just doctors and nurses but working-class bus drivers, cleaners, sanitation workers, grocery-store staff. But when the emergency is past will we still treat the idea of a living wage for these "essential workers" as a fringe idea?
But what about small businesses for whom a $20 minimum wage might erase already thin margins? The means for making it work will have to be coded through policy.
The value of a healthy planet. Before-and-after-the-virus satellite photos are showing us what our Earth looks like with cleaner air. The virus won't stop climate change. But it hints at the Earth's ability to heal itself and makes it undeniable that the world is a single organism.
There's no serious debate about what's needed. What's been missing is commitment. The cost of repairing the planet is going to be so enormous that it will require measured steps; fighting over all or nothing will return the old normal. The theory of change management tells us commitment to a challenging goal comes from seeing early wins in our progress toward it.
The value of health-care access. When this is all over we should remember how the pandemic made it clear that our own health is contingent on the health of the least healthy among us. Inability to pay for good health care shouldn't put a whole society at risk.
The value of an honest shot. The Gini Coefficient, used by the World Bank to measure relative income inequality around the world, ranks the United States among the lower third of the world's nations. As the CEO Roundtable acknowledged, if the economic system prejudices the transfer of wealth to a few then something has gone wrong in delivering the promise of capitalism.
Too many people think the financial system is rigged. Policies that value general economic growth can re-rig the system with better incentives. The rules governing share buybacks, carried interest and leveraged buyouts would be a good place to start. These are things we can begin doing today if we have leadership.
A theme in American history is the squandering of abundance as if it will never end—buffalo, say, or timber. For a long time the system has been so rich no one notices its depletion. Forty years ago, for example, Americans inherited a wealthy society. It offered lots of opportunities for harvesters of that inheritance. But if you're a steward you value more than short-term gain.
The pendulum may be about to swing again. It's an interesting time to be alive.