BY BILL SCHUBART | APRIL 30, 2020
The pandemic we’re muddling through confronts each of us both with life-threatening risk and prospective opportunities for renewal. Anyone not rethinking their own life, human life in general, our care for the natural world that sustains us, and the value of informed governing is either paralyzed with fear or in a spiritual burrow.
The existential question we must grapple with is whether our post-pandemic world will continue to be only about enriching ourselves … or about rethinking our democracy, building and strengthening community, and healing the natural world that sustains us. The centrifugal impacts of social distancing and an imploding economy force the existential question, “Is human endeavor only about the accretion of wealth or also about mutual wellbeing and community?” The current administration’s evisceration of government agencies, their scientific resources and experience to cut taxes at any cost would suggest that it’s just about money. We mustn’t lose this opportunity to reimagine a democracy in which human and natural life are sustained to form the basis of an equitable economic revival.
Our most daunting challenge in Vermont is our tiny role in the federal system. Beyond what we control by statute within our borders, we have little control when it comes to the environment, supply chains, social trends, the economy or security.
But alongside our innovations in gay marriage, equitable educational funding, efforts to expand health care coverage, and women’s reproductive rights, our most powerful opportunity lies in exemplary innovation. Even then each of these initiatives is complicated or limited somewhat by federal policy, regulation or just politics.
While we must be mindful of the art of the possible in a federal system, we must ask ourselves what might we do better here at home — what lessons we can learn from what we’re experiencing now that throw into relief our current policy inadequacies?
Social distancing has closed our schools and colleges, most of which were already overwhelmed with deferred maintenance and infrastructure carrying-costs that taxpayers, students and donors can no longer afford. We must reimagine the public and private educational systems in ways that reduce their dependence on residency infrastructure, offer more participatory flexibility, share space and reduce discrimination based on tuition. While ensuring that all students have access to terminals and networks, we must develop and deploy broadband teleeducation standards, preserving the essence of educational quality — teacher excellence, personal mentorship and inspiration.
Before we rebuild Vermont’s roads and bridges and re-smog our urban centers, let’s reimagine a 21st century public transport system that moves us from home to downtown and city to city efficiently. Our romance with the fossilfueled car must end, except where it remains the only travel option.
In my lifetime, retail has migrated from downtown to malls to e-commerce. We must rethink everything from insecure supply chains to access and delivery options. Local retail will reemerge as a viable option for consumable and repeatable purchases, whereas lowertrafficked goods may well remain online. Personal service, advice, quality and price will be the determinants of what’s sold locally or online.
We must reimagine Vermont’s food supply and delivery systems.
The national food industry has denatured and polluted raw, nutritious natural food, contributing to the obesity of 70 million Americans by adding sugar, salt and trans fats. We must help our 660 remaining dairy farms wean themselves from their dependency on a shrunken market and the mercurial price supports that have farmers dumping milk into fields and streams. We must support local farm-to-plate supply chains, encourage regenerative agriculture and regulate the use of toxic chemicals in soils and foods. In an economy that wastes 30-40% of its food supply, we can and must right-size supply and demand, restore nutrition and eliminate hunger.
Automation will continue consuming menial jobs while opening up more in information technology and engineering. Employment in service sectors like health care, education, social services and research will rebound. And we’ll need to join the rest of the civilized world in compensating while we retrain those whom the business sector discards.
The U.S. jails a greater percentage (2.3 million) of our population than any other major society including Russia and China. Vermont is reversing that trend. Our prison population is down from 1,650 in mid-March to 1,422 today. But we still spend $158 million annually on supervision, confinement and rehabilitation of those in jail or on parole and another $36 million on caring for their children. We’re well into a dialogue about moving that investment upstream and reducing it over time by investing in mental health care, addiction treatment, early treatment of adverse childhood experiences and reducing poverty.
Perhaps the strongest take away from the current pandemic is that we need a national health care system accessible to all. We must plan for future pandemics, as well as other natural and human-made disasters. Wealth can no longer be a determinant of care: illness and injury should. We must optimize our health care delivery networks, eliminating competition and better deploying individual practices, local clinics, critical-care and tertiarycare hospitals consistent with population densities. Medical education must be affordable, offering debt-forgiveness to attract more providers. Investment in new telemedicine technologies will triage and alleviate emergency admissions. Sadly, however, Vermont is held captive to national policy and a current administration trying to tear apart the progress made under Obama. Health care is an area where Vermont’s pioneering options are limited by national policy and reimbursement systems, as we saw during the Shumlin administration.
Finally, we must rethink the appropriate role of a democratic government, its values, the expectations of its citizens and the benefits it provides. The chaos that ensued when Reagan and Thatcher declared government “not the solution but the problem” persists today. Ironically, under Trump, the endgame of their ideology, bears out their contention that government is the problem.
Is the essential disagreement really philosophical or one that merely camouflages a means of allocating additional wealth to those in power?
The current crisis is teaching us that the general well-being of citizens, their families and communities is, in fact, a prerequisite for a healthy economy. So, if government has a role in our wellbeing, we must answer the question … how so and for whom?