A ‘new normal’? It all depends what we want out of life

The question about what is most important in life is a very, very old one, and the answers never converge on universal agreement. It appears that this is not likely to change as the world navigates the challenges of a global pandemic. There is much talk in opinion pieces and among policy makers, politicians, and news commentators about what a ‘new normal’ might look like when we’re ready for it. Lots of comments about lessons learned from how different countries have approached the pandemic, what weaknesses have been exposed in existing government systems, and how we now have an opportunity – when we’re ready – to consider new ways of doing things as the economy ‘reopens’. Everyone has agreed, even if reluctantly, that not everything will be the same again. That the economy in any country won’t be able to just pick up and move along the same trajectory it had been following. There will be new opportunities and new realities.

I won’t go through the very long list of what might change and in what ways. People familiar with their own environment can do their own imagining. People who typically use crowded public transit to get to work and then have to get on crowded elevators to get to their place of work will have very different thoughts on what a new normal might look like than someone who drives to work and doesn’t interact with many people. Businesses that have found that much of their work can be done remotely more successfully than they might have expected may consider not renting as much office space in the future, meaning than office space vacancies could surge. The list of what might change is endless.

I encountered two articles this week that gave me pause in thinking about this wish for constructing a ‘new normal’ that will produce a ‘better world’. One, an article by Thomas Edsall in the New York Times entitled When the mask you’re wearing ‘tastes like socialism’, provided insights into the remarkably divergent views on what a ‘better world’ should look like, at least in the U.S. The other article, an opinion piece by Dr. Pali Lehohia in the business section of the South African newspaper IOL, entitled Gross National Happiness may be better measure as we tackle COVID-19, gave an interesting suggestion to South Africa for moving forward to a ‘new normal’: look to Bhutan.

The first article, the one with the provocative title that suggests wearing a face mask to protect not just you but others from exposure to the COVID virus is something to be avoided as a matter of political affiliation, explained the firm commitment of conservatives to free markets above all else. From the article, relaying an interview the author had with Dr. Aaron McCright, a researcher and professor in sociology at Michigan State University:

“If you are a conservative, a key tenet of your ideology is that unregulated markets naturally produce good; they are the most efficient way that humans have ever seen for distributing goods, services, wealth, etc. Any attempts to regulate, intervene upon, steer, etc. an economic market will make it necessarily less efficient. A government driven by some sense of altruism — ‘dogooderism’ by ‘bleeding hearts’ — will only muck up the functioning of an efficient market.

Liberals, McCright continued, do not hold nearly as much belief in the power of unregulated markets to necessarily produce good without substantial negative side effects. As such, liberals are more supportive of governmental intervention to protect public health, environmental quality, the poor, etc. In other words, liberals accept some degree of economic regulation, and perhaps slower growth, reduced profits, etc., if it means improving public health, environmental quality, etc.

[Edsall] I asked: Do liberals and conservatives value life in different ways? McCright replied, “Liberals and conservatives certainly value different things — and ‘life’ gets caught up in these different things in different ways.”

In general, he contended, conservatives value economic growth; markets with little or no governmental intervention; little to no constraints on ‘individual liberty’ and private property rights; etc. Liberals value educational opportunities; support for the vulnerable; environmental protection; checks on economic power; the extension of rights to previously oppressed groups; etc.”

This faith in an unregulated free market strikes me as being awfully trusting. It isn’t just the risk for the environment with deregulation (which of course is a risk for the health of our only planet and also for its inhabitants, including humans). There’s the risk for clients when financial and investment institutions don’t feel constrained by regulations, as happened in 2008. There’s the risk for those workers and their families whose employers are more interested their bottom line than in their employee’s welfare. We’ve all now learned what happens to staff as well as residents in long term care homes when crises such as this pandemic arise. And in meat plants. And in hospitals. And in Amazon warehouses. There’s the risk of failing to prevent corruption at every level without regulations and oversight. And those are just for starters. Sorry, but I’m not sure how the average citizen is supposed to have confidence in an unregulated free market system that is skewed to the corporations over the customers and employees by definition of being unregulated. I guess it works for those who have an “I’m all right, Jack” attitude, until they’re not all right.

The other article reminds the reader of an alternative way of thinking about the progress of a country other than just economic growth. It’s a measure of Gross National Happiness (GNH) instead of the more well-known measure of Gross National Product (GNP). GNH was developed by the small Himalayan country of Bhutan for keeping track of its country’s progress according to what it as a nation values most. It measures its annual progress with an eye to those values. The UN’s annual World Happiness Report is based on Bhutan’s concept of Gross National Happiness.

In contrast to the conservative set of societal values as presented above – unregulated free market and personal liberty – the values the Bhutanese espouse for their society are captured in their goals for Gross National Happiness. There are four pillars, or goals: sustainable and equitable socio-economic development, environmental conservation, preservation and promotion of culture, and good governance.   The nine domains – or measurable objectives – of GNH are psychological well-being, health, time use, education, cultural diversity and resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience, and living standards. One could probably say that these values are not dissimilar to those described as liberal values in the NY Times interview above between Edsall and McCright.

Most of the western world have looked to economic growth as the one and only indicator of success; after all, even those countries whose social programs are paramount to their society’s values need the revenues to make those programs happen. And economic growth has morphed into dependence on a consumer society whereby we are encouraged to buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have. Stop buying for a few minutes and we are in trouble.  A far cry from the society our parents or grandparents knew before easy credit, a society that based its decisions on lessons learned from the Depression. Our consumer society has become dependent on a global network whereby much of the manufacturing has been offshored to ensure we can keep our goods really cheap – produced by poor third world people making a few dollars a day. There will be big decisions to be made over whether countries – and corporations – are now prepared to “repatriate” those manufacturing jobs and pay domestic workers proper salaries. The cost of goods will escalate and our consumer society will change significantly. There are many parameters at stake as these decisions are considered.

Image credit: Busy.org

It all comes down to what we, in each of our countries, value most for the kind of society in which we want to live and raise our future generations. In each of our countries we do indeed find ourselves with an unexpected opportunity to take stock of where we are, what weaknesses have been exposed during this pandemic, and what we are prepared to sacrifice to make changes that are important to us as we rebuild our societies once the pandemic is contained. These decisions clearly will not be the same in every country; values do vary from one country to another. And none of the decisions will be easy ones. Let’s hope that in each country its people can have confidence that their path forward will lead to a healthy economy, but also a more tolerant and equitable society.



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25 Responses to A ‘new normal’? It all depends what we want out of life

  1. candidkay says:

    Several years ago, I visited Costa Rica. And I was amazed and encouraged by people who did not make a lot of money, but had a good quality of life and were very happy. They appreciated their beautiful surroundings and “Pura Vida.” We could all use a little of that.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      What a great example, Kay. One of my favourites. Costa Rica always comes out above many western countries in the UN’s annual Happiness Report because of this attitude and the way these values are embodied in the policies of their government. Several decades ago they dismantled their military and transferred their country’s external protection to the UN. At that time they said that instead of having soldiers, they were going to have more teachers and doctors. I love that sentiment. They have big protections for their environment and strong laws around climate change. As well, they consider electricity and now Internet to be basic human rights. You’re so right, we could all use a little of that. ❤

  2. This is why I loved the idea of minimalism so much. I had read a story one day on this consumerism aspect. There was this guy who got a job and then bought a Mercedes car. He was a normal guy but wanted to up his status. To buy the Mercedes he took a loan and then the loan interest was so high half of his income used to go off in paying the interests. Therefore at the end he had no money left to buy any fuel for the car and ended up traveling to work in public transport. This is how half of this world works. Though I feel even minimalism can be a little hard but only the one thing of knowing whether a object is really required or not while buying it can help a lot. But then who knows so many marketing traps going on all around it is hard to understand the line. i loved reading your post.

    Best wishes from The Strong Traveller and have a great day.

    Do have a look at my blog whenever you find the time. There are some travel and lifestyle content which you may find interesting. Your thoughts will surely be very valuable. Stay connected. 🙂

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks for chiming in, Strong Traveller. Your comment on the Mercedes reminded me that there was at least one Mercedes on the enormous lineup of cars waiting for food handouts somewhere in the US shown on the news last night. The sad irony of that was hard to miss. Somewhere between having to save up in advance for everything you need, like the post-Depression and WWII generation did, and irresponsible borrowing for things that are not easily repayable, there’s got to be a happy medium!

  3. Jean says:

    I want to believe a more tolerant society out of this covid-mess/fear. However I think it’s making many people turn abit more inward long term. Stay within their safe social familiar circles.

    I totally agree an unregulated market, means unregulated economic activity as a priority over protecting lives, environment. Here in Alberta, they just announced lifting the ban on open pit/coal mining after decades of control. Also the provincial environmental energy regulator is putting pause on environmental assessments for the oil and gas in industry. Just wrong re UCP.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Oh no, Jean. What a devastating backwards step. A perfect example of how things could be so different but won’t be with the mindset of the UCP govt. Alberta could have been leading the way in diversifying beyond just relying on their fossil fuels. Could have been doing so long ago. What a shame for all concerned.

  4. Reblogged this on Musings and Wonderings and commented:
    Here is something to really think about and not just blithely lay blame elsewhere.

  5. LA says:

    The comment about education strikes me as odd. Right now, I can only see the educational divide growing. My daughter is currently tutoring a middle schooler who is in the nyc public school system with an IEP (individualized educational plan) this kid is already behind his peer group, and will continue to be worse off the longer this continues. Though his mother was smart enough to actually contact the group my daughter is volunteering through in order to get him a free tutor, how many students are not taking advantage of these opportunities? Lack of education is going to be crushing to many, mostly kids who were already on the edge to begin with. Learning from home isn’t even close to equality

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Such an important topic, LA. My guess is that the reference to education is the relative importance McCright thinks liberalism places on it versus conservatism. I agree that this is a huge concern in all our countries; the widening disparities for poorer and otherwise disadvantaged families very much includes the education gap. Lack of parents with the education and luxury of time (and sometimes with a language issue) to homeschool, lack of books and other resources, lack of computers and access to the Internet (especially in rural areas), etc. It’s scary for our societies, wondering how we can fill that gap. Crushing is a very appropriate word to use. So many reasons for many compassionate and clever people to work together to make good decisions. Our challenges are going to profound and many.

      • LA says:

        I don’t think it’s a liberal vs conservative view though. Especially now, as I’ve heard people say it doesn’t really matter if kids don’t go back to school because homeschooling will be fine. I find that train of thought bewildering and frankly a little scary. I am debating posting about that. Online learning is awesome for kids who have great computers and internet access, but unfortunately many do not. And kids with learning issues? Crazy.

        • Jane Fritz says:

          OMG. There are clearly a lot of clueless people living in their own bubbles. And learning styles, learning disabilities, supportive home environments also impact whether online learning works for kids. There are so many failings and challenges it’s heartbreaking.

        • LA says:

          My daughter said this kid is lucky because his parents are trying to find free alternatives to help him because they don’t have the ability. And my kids not a trained teacher, she’s just a patient kid whose personal cause is making sure all get a fair shake at an education. She can get him through his assignments, but can’t give him as much help as he needs.

        • Jane Fritz says:

          What a lucky kid (and parents), and also what a great experience for your daughter. ❤️ Now the world needs similar pairings for hundreds of thousands of others. 😥

        • LA says:

          If only. My daughter said the organization had tons of volunteers…students not so much….

        • Jane Fritz says:

          Wow, how interesting … and discouraging. Sigh.

        • LA says:

          I know. Hopefully things will get better…

  6. Some very salient thoughts in this post, Jane. I for one am always amused by conservatives who speak on behalf of markets and economies running unfettered by any intervention; yet they seem to lead the charge for stimulus handouts to corporations rather than people during trouble times (i.e. 2008 and now). I enjoyed the “mask” article very much. – Marty

    • Jane Fritz says:

      That’s a good example, Marty.Stimulus packages to some corporations could be just what’s needed, as long as there are well thought out accountability measures in place, including how their employees are treated. There’s the rub.

  7. barryh says:

    Of course your last comment comes down on the side of liberals vs conservatives, as described. I somehow think we need to balance between the polarities, but maybe you’re just saying the pendulum has swung too far in the conservative direction, which it clearly has in US. (That’s my bias coming out.)

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Some really good questions, Barry. I’m pretty sure everyone knows where I stand from other things I post, but there really aren’t easy answers to how any of our countries move forward. As I said, you can’t have a prosperous, fair, and equitable society without sufficient revenues. So in each jurisdiction govts will have to figure out what policies, taxes, and subsidies they’re going to put in place to ensure the healthiest outcome for employment and growth. But presumably that’s all in aid of directing/supporting the values important to their people. And every new thing they do has to be funded somehow. For example, I personally hope that those govts that have focused on austerity to get debt down have seen what outsized painful impact that has had on the most vulnerable. I hope those govts have seen what happens when healthcare systems and long term care facilities haven’t been funded adequately. I hope those govts that have seen food banks completely overwhelmed by people who never even knew they existed before will take a look at their social supports. And I hope they will give some thought to funding oil companies to get out of the fossil fuel business and into renewable energy instead of just handing them money. But that’s just me. The economy needs govt support right now, it’s a question of what and how. And social policy and priorities need at least as much thought. But that’s just me!

  8. dfolstad58 says:

    Enjoyed reading this Jane. My mind took off on different tangents. First I checked where Bhutan was and after this will check youtube for a virtual walk. Second it reminded me of Dragon’s Den, and the push I often see there to build cheaper in Asia to maximize profits. I always have thought how short-sighted that was. I think my happiness indicators are pretty good, not completely smooth sailing but I am mostly content and feel grateful to have made it this far.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks, David. Yes, I’d say just from reading your blog posts and your comments that you understand what your values are, and you live in a country that reflects them pretty well! I happen to have been privileged to have made 3 trips to Bhutan because of a university partnership. It’s a very special place. If you google ‘Robby Robin Bhutan’ (or just search Bhutan on my blog) you should find links to 3 or 4 posts I’ve done about it.

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