The right has made irresponsible behavior a key principle.
America’s response to the coronavirus has been a lose-lose proposition.
The Trump administration and governors like Florida’s Ron DeSantis insisted that there was no trade-off between economic growth and controlling the disease, and they were right — but not in the way they expected.
Premature reopening led to a surge in infections: Adjusted for population, Americans are currently dying from Covid-19 at around 15 times the rate in the European Union or Canada. Yet the “rocket ship” recovery Donald Trump promised has crashed and burned: Job growth appears to have stalled or reversed, especially in states that were most aggressive about lifting social distancing mandates, and early indications are that the U.S. economy is lagging behind the economies of major European nations.
So we’re failing dismally on both the epidemiological and the economic fronts. But why?
On the face of it, the answer is that Trump and allies were so eager to see big jobs numbers that they ignored both infection risks and the way a resurgent pandemic would undermine the economy. As I and others have said, they failed the marshmallow test, sacrificing the future because they weren’t willing to show a little patience.
And there’s surely a lot to that explanation. But it isn’t the whole story.
For one thing, people truly focused on restarting the economy should have been big supporters of measures to limit infections without hurting business — above all, getting Americans to wear face masks. Instead, Trump ridiculed those in masks as “politically correct,” while Republican governors not only refused to mandate mask-wearing, but they prevented mayors from imposing local mask rules.
Also, politicians eager to see the economy bounce back should have wanted to sustain consumer purchasing power until wages recovered. Instead, Senate Republicans ignored the looming July 31 expiration of special unemployment benefits, which means that tens of millions of workers are about to see a huge hit to their incomes, damaging the economy as a whole.
So what was going on? Were our leaders just stupid? Well, maybe. But there’s a deeper explanation of the profoundly self-destructive behavior of Trump and his allies: They were all members of America’s cult of selfishness.
You see, the modern U.S. right is committed to the proposition that greed is good, that we’re all better off when individuals engage in the untrammeled pursuit of self-interest. In their vision, unrestricted profit maximization by businesses and unregulated consumer choice is the recipe for a good society.
Support for this proposition is, if anything, more emotional than intellectual. I’ve long been struck by the intensity of right-wing anger against relatively trivial regulations, like bans on phosphates in detergent and efficiency standards for light bulbs. It’s the principle of the thing: Many on the right are enraged at any suggestion that their actions should take other people’s welfare into account.
This rage is sometimes portrayed as love of freedom. But people who insist on the right to pollute are notably unbothered by, say, federal agents tear-gassing peaceful protesters. What they call “freedom” is actually absence of responsibility.
Rational policy in a pandemic, however, is all about taking responsibility. The main reason you shouldn’t go to a bar and should wear a mask isn’t self-protection, although that’s part of it; the point is that congregating in noisy, crowded spaces or exhaling droplets into shared air puts others at risk. And that’s the kind of thing America’s right just hates, hates to hear.
Indeed, it sometimes seems as if right-wingers actually make a point of behaving irresponsibly. Remember how Senator Rand Paul, who was worried that he might have Covid-19 (he did), wandered around the Senate and even used the gym while waiting for his test results?
Anger at any suggestion of social responsibility also helps explain the looming fiscal catastrophe. It’s striking how emotional many Republicans get in their opposition to the temporary rise in unemployment benefits; for example, Senator Lindsey Graham declared that these benefits would be extended “over our dead bodies.” Why such hatred?
It’s not because the benefits are making workers unwilling to take jobs. There’s no evidence that this is happening — it’s just something Republicans want to believe. And in any case, economic arguments can’t explain the rage.
Again, it’s the principle. Aiding the unemployed, even if their joblessness isn’t their own fault, is a tacit admission that lucky Americans should help their less-fortunate fellow citizens. And that’s an admission the right doesn’t want to make.
Just to be clear, I’m not saying that Republicans are selfish. We’d be doing much better if that were all there were to it. The point, instead, is that they’ve sacralized selfishness, hurting their own political prospects by insisting on the right to act selfishly even when it hurts others.
What the coronavirus has revealed is the power of America’s cult of selfishness. And this cult is killing us.
The marshmallow test is a famous psychological experiment that tests children’s willingness to delay gratification. Children are offered a marshmallow, but told that they can have a second marshmallow if they’re willing to wait 15 minutes before eating the first one. Claims that children with the willpower to hold out do much better in life haven’t held up well, but the experiment is still a useful metaphor for many choices in life, both by individuals and by larger groups.
One way to think about the Covid-19 pandemic is that it poses a kind of marshmallow test for society.
At this point, there have been enough international success stories in dealing with the coronavirus to leave us with a clear sense of what beating the pandemic takes. First, you have to impose strict social distancing long enough to reduce the number of infected people to a small fraction of the population. Then you have to implement a regime of testing, tracing and isolating: quickly identifying any new outbreak, finding everyone exposed, and quarantining them until the danger is past.
This strategy is workable. South Korea has done it. New Zealand has done it.
But you have to be strict and you have to be patient, staying the course until the pandemic is over, not giving in to the temptation to return to normal life while the virus is still widespread. So it is, as I said, a kind of marshmallow test.
And America is failing that test.
New U.S. cases and deaths have declined since early April, but that’s almost entirely because the greater New York area, after a horrific outbreak, has achieved huge progress. In many parts of the country — including our most populous states, California, Texas, and Florida — the disease is still spreading. Overall, new cases are plateauing and may be starting to rise. Yet state governments are moving to reopen anyway.
This is a very different story from what’s happening in other advanced countries, even hard-hit nations like Italy and Spain, where new cases have fallen dramatically. It now looks likely that by late summer we’ll be the only major wealthy nation where large numbers of people are still dying from Covid-19.
Why are we failing the test? It’s easy to blame Donald Trump, a man-child who would surely gobble down that first marshmallow, then try to steal marshmallows from other kids. But America’s impatience, its unwillingness to do what it takes to deal with a threat that can’t be beaten with threats of violence, runs much deeper than one man.
It doesn’t help that Republicans are ideologically opposed to government safety-net programs, which are what make the economic consequences of social distancing tolerable; as I explain in today’s column, they seem determined to let crucial emergency relief expire far too soon. Nor does it help that even low-cost measures to limit the spread of Covid-19, above all wearing face masks (which mainly protect other people), have been caught up in our culture wars.
America in 2020, it seems, is too disunited, with too many people in the grip of ideology and partisanship, to deal effectively with a pandemic. We have the knowledge, we have the resources, but we don’t have the will.