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Now that the nation has begun reopening, we are seeing a raft of predictions about the coming “New Normal.”
Not surprisingly, forecasts from our doom-and-gloom political class are overwhelmingly downers.
Sports games will take place without fans. Elbow bumps will replace the warm handshake. Happy hour crowds at restaurants will be replaced by half-empty dining rooms.
Friendly cashiers at our neighborhood markets will be forever encased behind plexiglass barriers. Facemasks will be the must-have fashion accessory, not only for fall, but beyond.
One prediction heard repeatedly is that the New Normal may consist of recurring contagions followed by lockdowns, kind of like the periodic brownouts experienced by California and third world countries.
It is said that COVID-19 will alter not just our habits, but also our politics.
We’re told by pundits on both sides that the gargantuan federal relief spending brought on by the crisis means that expanded government control over our lives is inevitable, especially in sectors like health care. In tomorrow’s not-so-brave New World, customs and culture, will change forever.
We should be skeptical.
In fact, the nation has lived through a succession of New Normals.
People also agonized over the New Normal in the period following World War I and the 1918 Spanish Flu – even if they didn’t use that term.
Yet the disillusionment of that era ultimately gave way to the Roaring Twenties. Unfortunately, that exuberant New Normal didn’t last. Just when it seemed safe to party like it was 1929, the Jazz Age slammed into the Great Depression and, eventually, the Second World War.
In the 1970s, inflation and energy scarcity were supposed to be the New Normal. But, thanks to changes in government policy including stabilization of the dollar, those disastrous conditions were supplanted by Reagan era prosperity.
In the late 1990s, we were told that the New Normal was “the new economy.” Stocks of tech companies, however improbable their business models, “could only keep going up.”
The dot-com bust and the financial crisis of 2008 ended this magical thinking. Faster than you could say “red is the new black,” belief in progress through wealth creation and growth were suddenly passé.
The New Normal was supposed to be “secular stagnation” – professor-speak for a perpetually stagnant economy — and a ‘woke’ nation that rejected private sector ‘greed’.
During that downbeat era, no one could have imagined that, just a few short years later, Americans would elect a president who was the most unapologetic champion of capitalism since Ronald Reagan.
By the time 2020 rolled around— before the coronavirus hit the country in the solar plexus—capital creation and growth were back. Secular stagnation seemed destined for extinction.
Based on past performance, today’s prognosticators will likely be no better than their predecessors at predicting what the post-contagion world will look like.
Yes, people may be initially reluctant to resume their old activities. But there’s no telling how long this reluctance will last, or whether health security measures like temperature checks will become a permanent part of life, like the added airport security after 9/11.
Nor should the left or the right automatically assume that the post-pandemic New Normal will feature an even larger, more powerful Washington.
Fears of the inflationary potential of continued money printing, shared by even some on the left, may help foster some fiscal restraint.
The pandemic is also different than past disasters like the 2008 financial crisis or, for that matter, the Great Depression: Unlike those catastrophes, it is not perceived as a private sector offense requiring entirely new bureaucracies to remedy “market failure.”
The virus may have kicked off the crisis. But the lion’s share of suffering that followed has been a consequence of the “social distancing” responses imposed by the federal and state governments.
However well-intentioned, those actions have resulted in a loss of freedom never before experienced by Americans.
Citizens were suddenly forced into lockdowns that in some parts of the country seemed excessive and inexplicable.
They are being deprived of access to schools, parks and other public services paid for by their tax dollars.
Forced to sustain substantial financial hardship, many have become enraged by local officials on tax-funded salaries, who have lectured them or otherwise shown little or no concern. The need to “flatten the curve” is widely appreciated and understood.
Yet there is no telling how the trauma of this “black swan” loss of liberty will reverberate through the collective psyche of Americans — and what black swan results it may produce in the coming election.
It is natural in uncertain times for people to look to authorities to provide the illusion of certainty. And pundits seeking self-validation are always happy to oblige.
However, if there is one lesson that we can draw from history, it is ‘beware of experts peddling New Normals,’ especially during an election year.