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.
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.