Tuesday, April 7, 2020
April 7, 2020

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Jayne: Are we up to the task with virus?

By , Columbian Opinion Editor
Published:

Admittedly, we have lived a life of privilege. Or, to put a finer point on it, we have been spoiled.

For decades, Americans have increasingly followed the adage that greed is good. That we don’t need to prepare for the future. And, perhaps most damaging, that communal sacrifice is unnecessary.

Sure, we have suffered through trying times that have bonded us. My generation has a vague memory of the Vietnam War. And we lived and persevered through 9/11 and the Great Recession. We have seen ups and downs as any generation does, but we rarely have had to sacrifice, and when we did it was only temporary before we could get back to our individualistic pursuit of happiness.

Think about it. The nation’s response to the Vietnam War was the end of the draft, eliminating a shared and often involuntary commitment to the nation.

The response to the egalitarian presidency of Jimmy Carter was the presidency of Ronald Reagan, which brought tax cuts, deficits, and the removal of solar panels from the White House.

The response to 9/11 was two wars fought by volunteers, tax cuts, and recommendations that we should go out and spend money, because otherwise the terrorists will win.

And the response to the Great Recession was more tax cuts for most Americans (yes, Obama cut taxes) and more suggestions to go out and spend.

Rarely in my lifetime have Americans been asked to sacrifice for the good of the nation. We have been privileged. We have been spoiled.

In a column for The Washington Post that is well worth reading, historian Joseph Stieb pinpoints this unflattering trait to The Great Depression and World War II: “Shortly after the war, the New Deal economist Robert Nathan wrote: ‘Only if we have large demands can we expect large production. Therefore … ever-increasing consumption on the part of our people is … one of the prime requisites for prosperity.’ This conflation of consumption and citizenship altered Americans’ conceptions of themselves and what they demand of their leaders.”

The result for the past 75 years has the world’s most powerful economy. There’s nothing wrong with that. The United States’ consumer culture has resulted in products and innovations that have enhanced prosperity at home and around the globe. We have had a remarkable standard of living and a remarkable string of technological achievements that have put a man on the moon and a computer in the pockets of billions of people. But that has come with a cost.

“Following these economic and cultural shifts,” Stieb writes, “the relationship between voter and elected official transitioned into a contract in which the government’s legitimacy was based on its ability to provide for an ever-expanding standard of consumption. If the people’s responsibility was to consume, the government’s responsibility became maintaining economic conditions that allowed them to do so; in short, preserving their prosperity. By the 1970s, historian Lizabeth Cohen argues, the idea of an elected official calling for sacrifice for a common cause became harder to conceive.”

Hence, our shameful inability to forcefully address climate change.

All of which seems pertinent as the nation deals with the coronavirus pandemic. After decades of being taught that it is our patriotic duty to consume, suddenly we are unable to do so. Stores are closed and people are out of work and our civic responsibility has shifted to simply helping each other survive.

Nobody knows what the outcome will be. Nobody knows how many people will fall ill and how many will die, or how deep will be the gorge carved through the economy. For better or worse, this will be a transformative period for an American society that long has tried to avoid making sacrifices.

As Stieb notes: “Our notions of self, society and government have changed in ways that make it harder to put the collective good first when we really need to.”

And, in many ways, we are much poorer for it.

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