Five reflections from 2020.

Without a single mention of you-know-what.

I’m taking a sabbatical in 2021 to write and explore and learn some lessons. I’ve started an email newsletter to share those experiences with others. If that sounds interesting to you, I’d be honored if you subscribed.

As one of the most tumultuous years on the books draws to a close, it’s natural to look back for lessons that we can take forward with us into the new year. Based on the year that we all collectively experienced, those lessons are probably bigger and more important than ever before. But it’s easy for you-know-what to overshadow everything else and to become the lesson of 2020. But you-know-what isn’t the lesson of 2020 — it’s the lessons that lie behind you-know-what that we need to reflect on and carry forward into next year and the years to come. This is an attempt to tease out some of those lessons without directly addressing you-know-what.

Just over 100 years ago there was another you-know-what. The difference between 1918 and 2020 is that 100 years ago people had to sit back and wait it out as tens of millions of lives were wiped out. In 2020, our collective scientific knowledge and technological abilities are orders of magnitude greater than they were 100 years ago. All of that science and technology sprang into action in the early days of you-know-what and developed multiple highly effective vaccines in record time using brand new technologies. The development of these vaccines was so rapid that it beat even the most optimistic of predictions.

It’s hard to overstate how impressive the development of these vaccines has been.

2020 has clearly demonstrated what the scientific process is capable of. It can address intractable problems in nearly miraculous ways when there is focused attention and when resources and incentives are provided.

When the history of 2020 is written, we will not point to individual lifestyle adjustments and sorting into ideological camps as the solutions that ended you-know-what. We will point to science and vaccines.

There are other intractable collective problems that we face that are at least as significant as you-know-what. Examining how we might press technology into the service of solving these problems will be essential. If we find solutions to these problems it will be because of science, so we need to start looking there.

Nothing gives pause to radical individualism more quickly than a cursory consideration of public health. There is nothing individualistic about catching a disease from someone else or spreading it to others. You-know-what doesn’t care about you as an individual; it cares about us together as a species. So we need to start thinking together as a species rather than just as individuals.

When people protest public health measures and claim that these measures infringe on their individual rights, they are correct. The individual benefits are quite small and are likely outweighed by the personal cost and inconvenience and discomfort of the public health measure.

But that’s the wrong way of looking at it. Public health measures are not intended to benefit you — they’re intended to benefit us. All of us. Because that’s how you-know-what looks at it: the whole species is a potential target. When you look at it this way, the minor costs, inconveniences, and discomforts of public health measures make a whole lot of sense because they deliver enormous benefits to us collectively.

Put another way, you are better off when your neighbors and fellow community members are healthy. Their health isn’t their own — everyone else in society has an interest in maintaining and supporting it. That isn’t so hard to see.

But if we really believed that, what might we do differently? Might we all chip in just a little bit more to ensure that everyone has access to health care? If we did, we would all benefit. Our neighbors would be less likely to get us sick and we’d be less likely to get them sick.

In his first inaugural address, President Ronald Regan declared that government is the problem. Economist Milton Friedman wrote a book a decade later titled “Why Government Is the Problem.” For the past 40 years this mentality has pervaded much of the political discourse and policy making in the United States.

Government can certainly be a problem. Tyranny and violence and government overreach are definitely problems. Corruption and abdication of governmental duties are clearly problems. We can have all sorts of debates on what the extent of legitimate governmental action is.

But to state categorically that government is the problem is something else entirely. It makes for a compelling line in a political speech, but it obviously isn’t helpful in any way. Government provides all sorts of services that people would never want to give up. There are all sorts of interesting discussions to be had about which services should be provided and how they should be provided, but a belief that government is the problem leads to a belief that no government action is legitimate.

And when you don’t believe that any government action is legitimate, you don’t invest in the institutions of government. That’s what we’ve seen over the last 40 years: underinvestment and active undermining of the institutions of government.

2020 laid bare all of that underinvestment in institutions. And it made perfectly what what all the attendant consequences are.

Other countries have been remarkably more successful at dealing with you-know-what than the United States has been. As one point of comparison, Taiwan has invested heavily in public health over the last two decades, while the United States has cut investment in public health. During you-know-what, Taiwan’s public health institutions swung into action and the results have been phenomenal: 7 deaths and fewer than 800 confirmed infections. In the United States, underfunded public health institutions were hampered throughout you-know-what by a belief that government is the problem. The result: the state of New York, with 4 million fewer people than Taiwan, has had nearly a million confirmed cases and over 37,000 deaths.

In cases like these, government isn’t the problem. The belief that government is the problem is the problem. Because when people believe that government is the problem government is prevented from performing its legitimate roles.

Universal basic income (UBI) has gradually gained more attention over the past few years. It got a major bump in the Democratic presidential primary when Andrew Yang made it central to his campaign and built a sizable and loud following.

The economic fallout of you-know-what has been unprecedented. And there is still a lot of uncertainty going forward. But one thing is certain: the stimulus and enhanced unemployment benefits provided by the CARES Act prevented a massive economic collapse and full fledged depression.

The analogy isn’t perfect, but the enhanced unemployment benefits served as a sort of basic income for tens of millions of Americans. And the outcomes were pretty good: families out of work didn’t end up on the streets or behind on bills, consumer spending stayed relatively strong despite all the economic fallout, and savings rates went up. In fact, the program was so successful that huge numbers of individuals who received unemployment were better off after losing their jobs than they were before.

Now, there were certainly problems with the program. Some people had to wait weeks or even months to receive unemployment assistance because unemployment offices didn’t have the capacity to handle so many filings at once (see the previous point about investing in government institutions). In addition, the generosity of the program disincentivized people from going back to work. Such things can be expected in the face of an unexpected emergency and the rushed nature of the legislation.

Despite these problems, the enhanced unemployment program should prompt public debate and inquiry about the viability and desirability of an actual UBI program. In the midst of all the suffering during you-know-what, we may have seen the faint outlines of a future in which no one needs to fear going hungry of homeless.

In the past few weeks we have seen a public ritual played out on repeat. A public official roles up his or her sleeve, gets the vaccine, pronounces that the healthcare worker who gave the shot did a good job, and then posts pictures and video all over social media and the news. It’s part of an important effort to increase confidence in the vaccine since vaccines are only effective if a high percentage of the population gets them (see the points above about science and our health not being our own).

When I saw Vice President Mike Pence and President Elect Joe Biden got their public shots, I had a strange reaction. These guys have been in the public eye for years and I would recognize either of them at a glance. But I’d never seen either of their arms before. I know this sounds weird, but something about it made both of them seem a little more human to me. Joe Biden has hairy upper arms and Mike Pence’s arm looks kind of scrawny. Under both their suits they’re just guys with weird looking arms like the rest of us.

Underneath every story this year has been people — flawed, hurt, scared, angry, beautiful people. We would do well to remember that. We would do well to design policy around that. We would do well to design public messaging around that.

We are not automatons or parts of a machine that will function as designed or instructed. We’re people. We’re good a justifying our activities as essential while deeming the activities of others as inessential and condemning them in the process.

A better use of our time and energy would be designing and building a society in which everyone can flourish. And that starts with recognizing that we’re all broken and beautiful people.

Happy New Year. May it be prosperous and joyful and meaningful and full of flourishing.

I’m taking a sabbatical in 2021 to write and explore and learn some lessons. I’ve started an email newsletter to share those experiences with others. If that sounds interesting to you, I’d be honored if you subscribed.

BS Math & Masters in Public Policy, Cal Poly. JD, Georgetown. Minimalism, digital nomadism, reading, eating well, exercise, good coffee and conversation, LVT.

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