By Ron Knecht – 15 September 2020
Usually, when we think of the most fundamental things – here, democracy, capitalism, culture and even civilization itself – we assume they are mostly fixed and unchanging, except maybe for the better.
That allows us to make choices about consumption, investing, marriage, children, planning for the future, and other activities reasonably, not by guessing.
The extraordinary events this last year have called these assumptions into question.
Consider our form of government. By “democracy,” we mean republicanism: most importantly the rule of law; choice of key government authorities via election; constitutionally limited government; individual rights and liberty; etc. Current riots, looting, arson, theft, assault and even murder by Antifa, Black Lives Matter and their allies threaten our form of government, as well as the capitalist economy, to the point they put civilization itself at risk.
This threat is so great it tends to obscure the extreme differences offered by this year’s state and national elections – the greatest in 160 years. These radical differences have been developing over half a century in government, economics and education. So, they should be less surprising than they are. But they have emerged and come to a head so fast that they shock us.
And what happens if the results of the coming elections so displease the anarchists, nihilists and their ilk that they fly into a cosmic rage seeking to incinerate all of us?
The slow growth and resulting damage to our economy and human wellbeing, however, has been developing the last 30 years and became manifest over the last decade. Very slow long-term growth and its consequences, while devastating in many ways, is something we’ve been trying to adjust to as the new normal since the Great Recession.
The economic damage from the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting shutdowns of so much activity and life are another matter, with unknowable and likely devastating consequences, perhaps even in the long run. Such an overwhelming one-time shock is unknown in our experience but for two world wars in the last century.
The economic and cultural damage and social disorientation from even those two wars was slower to develop and less uniformly destructive to our economy than the shutdowns. Likewise, the pandemic of a century ago was less damaging and disorienting because state and local governments did not hugely over-react to it the way they have this one.
Economically, we’re well into uncharted waters. Mapmakers of old often labeled such areas with warnings such as: “Here there be monsters.” Our present circumstances have that feel.
While the economic prospects are a giant threatening void, the cultural outlook allows for some hope and optimism. Yes, this year’s symphony, opera and dance seasons are cancelled, but major league, college and high school sports are trying to cobble together something.
On the other hand, beloved restaurants continue to fail in droves. Candy dances, sidewalk and park fairs, and rodeo too. But we can also take small comfort as many baseball fans long have in the words, “Wait ‘til next year.”
The cataclysm has not done as much damage nor interrupted literary and intellectual matters, and even the enjoyment of music and art at home, in good part because technology contributes to their continuity and access. On the other hand, many folks no longer look primarily to religion for much hope.
So all this is scary and disorienting, even as the Pollyanna’s of the world occasionally lob water balloons of hope and optimism. We also console ourselves with the notion that it can’t stay this bad or continue in negative directions forever. Right?
Well, we hope right. But the current political, economic and cultural damage were each unimaginable a year ago — let alone all three in concert. Moreover, history shows that continuous progress in them was lacking for thousands of years before it began 250 years ago.
Economic growth was long essentially nil. Politically, man exploited man as a rule, not an exception. Culture was usually as poor as economics and politics.
When civilization’s lights went out with the fall of Rome’s empire, the Arthurian Legends arose to give the people some small hope. I hope the fragility of democracy, capitalism, culture and civilization do not now require a similar comforting myth.
Ron Knecht, MS, JD & PE(CA), has served Nevadans as state controller, a higher education regent, economist, college teacher and legislator. Contact him at [email protected].