After the outbreak
What would the world look like after an historic pandemic?
I’ve been following the coronavirus outbreak for a little over a month now. I won’t recap the current status or even look at some of the potentially dire scenarios a few months down the road. Instead, I will assume a massive impact and give my scifi take on the aftermath.
There seems to be a good chance of a very large economic impact—not a recession or a depression, but a need to fundamentally revisit how modern economies operate. Supply chain disruptions will make us realize profit-maximized, just-in-time, global supply networks aren’t even modestly robust against black swan events. As a matter of national security, nations will become skeptical of economic interdependence. This can be addressed with unthinkably expanded global governance or unthinkably reduced globalism. With governments in a prolonged and desperate fight against a new normal of deflationary and stasis economics—some governments will wholesale subsidize the creation of local industry, for reasons of national security, on a scale that resembles war socialism of WW2 more than the neoliberal free markets we’ve become used to. Universal basic income will be more broadly considered and adopted as a means to stimulate the economy, but there may not be enough capability to avoid the complete end of the paradigm of economic growth (which was likely to happen late in the century anyway due to shrinking global population)—closing out the 500 year experiment of modernity.
The black death was one of the largest stimuli in economic history, changing the bargaining power of labor and freeing up resources for more productive and less monopolistic uses—it’s hard to conceive of the renaissance, the age of exploration, or the enlightenment without the destruction of the black death making way for new forms of creation. Though this isn’t the black death even in the worst case scenario, it will hit older demographics hardest, putting a lot of housing on the market and delaying the conversation of social security insolvency for a few more years. Speaking of insolvency, the insolvency of the American healthcare system after paying for coronavirus-associated expenses will cause the collapse of the employer-based insurance experiment and usher in socialized medicine. There will be few brave enough to say this is a bad idea when the time comes.
In the wake of 9/11, the world pumped trillions into homeland security; the geopolitical theses of “new world order” and “end of history” were put to rest; and the culture arced out on a hitherto unforeseeable trajcetory that culminated with the politics of the mid 2010s. Likewise, in the wake of this outbreak, unimaginable investments in healthcare and biotech will take place, international realignments will occur, and the culture will respond. Speaking only to the first of these: The tepid pace of innovation in biotech relative to software will accelerate radically and interplay with the factors discussed above in interesting ways. We will live in an era defined by our newly focused efforts to conquer biology. One of the peace dividends of the war against pathogens and disease will be synthetic biology taking its rightful place in the manufacturing supply chain. Biologically synthesized materials, along with radically advanced automated manufacturing, will re-localize economics. Most things you buy or eat will be made within 500 miles of you and to a greater or lesser extent be the product of biosynthesis and automation rather than natural resource exploitation and human labor .
Our inter-connectedness has developed as the result of an only partly economic process. The horrors of industrialized warfare in the 20th century left us searching for the means to crusade against war itself. The doctrine of inter-dependence is as much a security and diplomatic doctrine as an economic one, and it’s done a decent job at what it was designed to do. It has made us more vulnerable to the kind of threat an outbreak presents, both epidemiologically and in terms of supply chain resilience. So overall, the pendulum swinging back in the other direction isn’t as unthinkable as it seems.
On the cultural front, the political bickering—a luxury of late empire—we’ve witnessed recently will be replaced by a resurgent high-modernism. As the culture of the enlightenment was partially a coping mechanism for the horrors of the wars of religion, our desire to move on, along with our rediscovered sense of efficacy will relegate political spectacle and ideological overaffiliation to the status of shamefulness that it deserves. The tragedy of the civic commons, whereby certain types of people make their living destroying social capital, trust, and consensus-making for their own advantage, will be replaced, however temporarily, by a sense of cooperation and shared purpose.
I don’t know if any of the above will happen. I don’t even know if I think any of it will happen, but imagining a different world always helps me cope with the one we’re actually in.