Americans have at various times in our past battled horrific bouts with infectious disease. And Americans have lived through times of sheer economic desperation. But we’ve never — until this corona spring — experienced both at once.
The stats out this week have made this grim landmark “official.” Over 100,000 Americans now dead from Covid-19. Over 40 million claims for unemployment insurance. No nation on Earth has lost as many people to the coronavirus. No rich nation on Earth has a population less economically secure.
The United States is becoming, commentators have begun to contend, a “failed state.” We don’t, to be sure, have warlord gangs speeding through our neighborhoods, brandishing automatic weapons out of open-top jeeps. But we do have fanboys of our nation’s top elected leader carrying long guns into legislative chambers and screaming red-faced at lawmakers they despise.
“We are one trigger-pull away,” laments veteran Mideast journalist Lucian Truscott IV, “from what happens every day in places like Kabul and Mogadishu and Tripoli.”
Our core institutions, adds Jacobin editor Seth Ackerman, betray “a deep lack of administrative capacity,” be those institutions the bureaucracies that deal with safety-net benefits or the mail or even elections. State unemployment offices run on obsolete 1960s-era software that only “old retired former programmers” know how to fix.
The corona pandemic has put a spotlight on that obsolete software — and so much more.
“The crisis demanded a response that was swift, rational, and collective,” notes George Packer in the Atlantic. “The United States reacted instead like Pakistan or Belarus — like a country with shoddy infrastructure and a dysfunctional government whose leaders were too corrupt or stupid to head off mass suffering.”
So who to blame? Donald Trump makes an obvious and deserving target. But the failures of our ruling order predate his troubled and reckless administration. Our “chronic ills” — everything from “a corrupt political class” to a “heartless economy” — have gone, Packer points out, “untreated for years.”
How can we halt our national descent into full-bore “failed state” status? Taking a moment to contemplate how a “successful state” operates might be a good place to start.
In a successful state, people thoughtfully identify the problems they share in common and democratically debate a variety of possible solutions. But this democratic dialogue doesn’t just happen. Democratic dialogues only unfold effectively and efficiently when people actually share common problems.
That commonality has been disappearing in the United States over the past half-century. The culprit? Rising economic inequality. Our richest have become ever more rich and lead lives ever more distant from the lives Americans of modest means lead. The problems that vex average Americans — paying the rent, finding health care, affording college — keep no rich people awake at night.
On paper, that shouldn’t matter. Our democracy has many more average-income than high-income people. Our government’s priorities ought to reflect the concerns average-income people share. But the wealthy in the United States don’t just have lots more wealth than everyone else. They have lots more power, and that power works to ensure that government addresses their problems, not ours.
The corona pandemic, political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson observed earlier this week, has “laid bare” this fundamental inequality dynamic. The clearest case in point: Our ruling Republican Party’s major-domos have gone “to the mat for the superrich.” They have “twisted relief bills to provide unrelated tax cuts and no-strings bailouts, shuttered the Senate amid a national health and economic crisis,” and “continued to float toxic ideas in an election year” — like “making people give up some of their Social Security benefits in return for a financial lifeline today.”
If these two political scientists — authors of the soon-to-be-published Let Them Eat Tweets: How the Right Rules in an Age of Extreme Inequality — are painting an accurate picture, we ought to see the same sort of political processes at play in other deeply unequal societies facing crises like pandemics. Turns out we do.
To be more specific: Societies with smaller gaps between their rich and everyone else, the latest research shows, consistently do better fighting infectious disease than more unequal societies.
So finds Mauro Guillen, a professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton business school. His new working paper, The Politics of Pandemics: Democracy, State Capacity, and Economic Inequality, examines how epidemic outbreaks have played out in 146 countries since 1995.
Inequality, Guillen’s research shows, makes epidemics “much, much worse, especially in terms of the number of people affected.”
Why should that be the case? For starters, notes a Wharton introduction to Guillen’s work, inequality “undermines people’s compliance with epidemic containment policies such as social distancing and sheltering in place because people at the low end of the socioeconomic scale cannot afford to stay at home.”
Successful states have the capacity — the resources — to make compliance more likely and treatment more effective. They provide safety-net supports. They don’t need to go hunting for masks and ventilators. They have more robust public systems in place for dealing with emergencies.
But many exceedingly rich people have little interest in supporting public systems of any sort. They don’t send their kids to public school or frolic in public parks or ride to work on public transportation. They live in an exclusive private world and like things that way. They see spending for building up public capacity as just another excuse to raise taxes on the wealthy.
The predictable result: In societies where wealth concentrates, public support systems wither. Communities lose the capacity to confront and overcome unexpected change.
“State capacity is a bulwark against the occurrence and ill effects of crises and emergencies,” as Wharton’s Guillen concludes, “while economic inequality exacerbates them.”
We need a vaccine to beat the coronavirus. But more equality might help a good bit, too.
Sam Pizzigati co-edits Inequality.org. His recent books include The Case for a Maximum Wage and The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970. Follow him at @Too_Much_Online.