This is the moment in the coronavirus saga when optimists dare to contemplate the day after, and some are prophesying wholesale change. Will it come? Human nature is basically what it is — but history does turn on inconceivable events.
Just as it was inconceivable that Germany would try to take over the world, or that my daughters can now instantly publish to everyone on Earth, so is it shocking that billions are on lockdown, Europe’s borders are closed, the global economy is at a trickle, and there are almost no events — yet even the normally excitable seem somehow rather stoic.
This situation is totally insane and it won’t soon be forgotten, so it’s reasonable to expect that it will also spark some change. Much of that will amount to an accelerating of trends that were hanging around before but have been turbocharged by the lockdown.
The most obvious in that bucket is stay-at-home work. It has long been possible and was already happening but never at this scale: Now most people working are doing it from home. When the crisis ends, everyone could return to offices. But some will probably conclude that having tried it, the loss of physical proximity to colleagues (and the benefits of getting out of the house) is outweighed by eliminating the costs and hassles of commuting (plus the environmental benefit). That should mean success for businesses that enable online work — and suppress commercial and office real estate.
Then there’s business travel. In the three months prior to the crisis I made six intercontinental trips for fairly brief meetings and one fancy conference, entailing hotels, expenses and the risk of planes crashing. Now all such meetings are held on Google Hangouts or Zoom — and the return on the investment of travel is starting to look dubious. Even a 10% shift will move the market; I wouldn’t want to hold airline or hotel stocks right now.
Fortunes will be made and lost on identifying such trends. Here are some suggestions.
- Equities. The volatility displayed by stock markets these days will not soon be forgotten. Few people alive today have seen markets fall by 40% in days. This seems unlikely to attract new money to the markets; few want to take such risks. I would not be surprised at a collective move to cash after enough of the losses have been recouped (and maybe to gold, which is up). Stock markets are just too interesting for comfort for most people.
- Globalization. It’s hard to believe it was ever popular and it had to do with efficiency, modernity and inevitability. Then people figured out it meant jobs fleeing the West and manufacturing and supply chain dependence on other countries, some of which were heinously governed. Will people pay double for their smartphones to not depend on China? Once China gets its fair share of the blame, this question will be in play.
- Liberal democracy. While for a laudable minority principles matter, for many it is survival and sustenance they seek. Authoritarians all over the world have eroded civil liberties under cover of a crisis. This trend may continue. In the United States, President Trump has been showing for a few years now how brittle is the whole edifice of civilized society — how limited it is to the readership of the Economist, the Atlantic and the New Yorker. Heaven help the worldview that depends on intellectuals in a democracy, for they are and always will be a minority.
- U.S. credibility. The United States is not set up to handle health emergencies — not with tens of millions without health insurance, so much distribution of power that little can efficiently be done, a doltish leadership, and a third of the population prepared to believe nonsense and follow that leadership off a cliff. Frequent mass murders cannot get this country to crack down on weapons sales; will coronavirus get it to understand that health care for all is important to all? Until such occurs, the U.S. will be looking like the superpower version of an idiot. Perhaps change is on the way.
- Social democracy. If humanity overcomes corona and the related economic disaster, it will be governments that did it. Governments will strong-arm or nationalize companies, pay salaries, compensate businesses and do it by printing money and piling up debt. No one expects the invisible hand to fix this problem, so we are in for an age of big government. If it sweeps aside foolish opposition in the United States to wiser taxation, gun control and especially universal health care, then coronavirus will have done some good.
- Sustainability. The denial of global warming and the other disasters we are sowing has depended on a sort of complacency about the resilience of our way of life. The global lockdown may leave even the less observant among U.S. conservatives with an understanding of the fragility of the environment, society and our lives. There is a chance we will become more serious about it, and that the Republican Party will start to pay a price for its criminal irresponsibility in this realm.
- Nationalism. After people hunkered down and got used to closed borders, as every country ends up depending on its own response and counting its own dead, fear of outsiders will rise. As authoritarians gain the upper ground over liberals, they will stoke nativist tendencies. These were already ascendant due to antipathy to globalization. The European Union, which was already in trouble, may not really be in trouble.
- All things digital. This has been happening for a while, and the coronavirus will accelerate the primacy of digital. It’s not just everything around online meetings. Something similar will likely happen to online education and online commerce. And remember that after this pandemic catastrophe, the world will be on edge for another one, and the smart money will go there.
It’s not so clear where China stands. China both begat the virus and has been successfully quashing it in a police state manner. The latter may add to its stature, especially if it hands out shiploads of masks and respirators. But if it turns out the virus was a laboratory accident in Wuhan (the conspiracy theory that dare not speak its name, and currently has no evidence), then all bets are off and boycotts may be coming.
I’d like to hope that corona will suppress the global market for nonsense. The populist war on facts and science, the acquiescence to spin and false equivalence, the primacy of victory and power over truth and justice — none of these are great for fighting natural disasters. But because of human nature, I cannot be sure this lesson will be learned; we will have to wait for November and see if Trump is reelected.
Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) wrote in biblical times that “there is nothing new under the sun.” Nineteenth-century French intellectual Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr is credited with “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” And less than 50 years ago, English rockers The Who asked us to “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”
The powerful idea that the essence is a constant persists through space and time and it usually holds true.
But there are those rare occasions when it’s absolutely wrong.
(A version of this story appeared in the New York Daily News)